Making sense of the politics of volunteering and camp conditions in Calais

Making sense of the politics of volunteering and camp conditions in Calais

Lotika Singha

I had been thinking of volunteering in the camp in Calais in an amorphous way for many months. Then one day in December 2015, Morven Telling’s account of ‘[t]ents as far as the eye could see, overflowing portable toilets, burst water pipes creating muddy lakes, cooking smells mixed with the stench of waste and sewage’ pushed me to book that ticket. On 15 February, I boarded the train with some trepidation. A week later I came back feeling years older, with my mind full of thoughts, about what I had seen, the politics of volunteering, the wider implications of the conditions of the camp in Calais.

I volunteered for three reasons: to do my bit; to join in the demonstration of disproval of European leaders’ politics around ‘immigration’; and as part of my own learning journey. But I am not a people person out of my comfort zone. So I went with the intention of volunteering in a charity warehouse, rather than in the camp. As the train rolled into Gare de Calais-Fréthun, I wondered if the trip would go as planned.

Soon after I reached I noted with guilty relief that multiple motives are not unusual among volunteers. But there is a tacitly understood order to fulfilling them. Even in a place where new faces arrive and old ones leave every day, and no CCTV is watching you, doing your bit is generally the first thing to do. Being able to say ‘I’ve done my bit’ puts a seal of legitimacy on one’s other motives. Motives like mine, or like those of the young freelance journalist who went to take pictures for a photoessay, or the playwright researching ideas. Still, what does, or what should, doing one’s bit include in a situation like in Calais?

As I listened to a charity worker’s volunteer briefing on day 1, several things struck me. It had to be clearly spelled out that people should not take photographs when they went into the camp as the charity’s representatives, the camp was not a zoo. At the same time, assurance was given to all new volunteers that they would try to ensure that everyone got a chance to go the camp. This was regardless of whether the volunteer was there for the day or for longer. That is, there was an implicit assumption that people’s primary intention in coming to Calais was to go the camp, rather than helping out anywhere. (Talking to people, I was clearly not alone in wanting to work only in the warehouse but we were in the minority.) We ‘general’ volunteers – those without particular training in, for instance medicine or counselling or teaching – could choose what they wanted to do. You volunteered to come, to do what you want to do. I met people who had moved on from one charity to the other when they were not happy with the way things were being done.

Of course you could not opt to be a team leader on day 1, but you could choose from a range of other tasks. Did you want to be in the van handing out clothes or food to the next person down the distribution chain? Or interact with the camp residents? So by day 3, I pushed to the back of mind my lack of people skills, and focused on my third motive for being in Calais: my own learnings from a first-hand perspective. The next time I heard the team leader say ‘Who wants to be’, I put up my hand without hearing the last part of the question.

Not quite soon enough I realised I had opted to be the ‘seller’. The person who was going to hold out three jumpers to a camp resident and ask them to choose one. The spirit of volunteering in the age of neoliberalism? There was some truth in that question. If the camp resident did not like any of the jumpers – ‘May I have a black hoodie?’ ­­– I should try to convince them that green-yellow stripes were just as good. If that failed, I should end the negotiation gently. And then I should continue to maintain a semblance of composure as I found myself holding a black hoodie as one of three choices for the next person in the queue. I decided selling was not for me.

Prior to going to the camp though, I encountered some contradictions around our reactions to filth. Like others before me, that was what finally took me to Calais. To help people who are living in squalor through no fault of their own. But my first encounter with filth was not in the camp. It was in the volunteer space. I couldn’t help noticing the dirty, messy state of the kitchen, the refreshment table and volunteers’ personal storage area in the warehouse when I arrived. The volunteer who kept these areas under control had been away for a few days, and when everybody’s in charge, little happens in this department. Another day, when there was no running water in the kitchen because the mains had frozen, a few people just used the unwashed cups. The two portable toilets were emptied every few days. On my first day, they appeared well used. There were grimaces, but no-one seemed anxious to request the contractor to increase the frequency of cleaning. I realised I could live without tea and that our reaction to filth is never fully a physical one. Cleaning up in the camp is ennobling. Cleaning the volunteer space is … a waste of time?

The perfunctory attention given to the notice ‘Please wash your cup’, resulted in considerable wastage of water and detergents. Rather ironical, when the prime purpose of being there was helping people with limited access to fresh water. Why not have a, named person, to do the job? I learned that the relatively invisible work of looking after each other is not quite considered part of the collective volunteering effort. But for me, the work of sorting through donated material, was the hardest, most repetitive work I had ever done. I preferred helping in the kitchen, and cleaning up after the other volunteers. It is part of doing my bit, doing our bit.

Popular media representations of the camp may evoke disgust for not just the camp’s conditions but the humans living there, ‘How can they …?’. Other reports tug at our humanity: ‘I can’t make sense of the situation in Calais – an obscene level of suffering on our doorstep, and in one of the world’s most prosperous countries …’ (David Kraft). As I looked at all the awfulness, the strongest feeling that arose within me was, rather unexpectedly, of déjà vu.

The pictures under the title of the article, as you might have guessed, are not showing the Calais camp but a slum in India. But they could be showing any of the thousands of human jungles in the world. Awful living conditions and mental trauma among non-citizens are not only a consequence of outright war and displacement. They are experienced by hundreds of millions of socially excluded people, all day, every day for entire lifespans. One does not even have to cross a political border to become a non-citizen. David Kraft’s comment seems to imply that this is acceptable or expected in developing countries, the backyards of the prosperous world, where we see and unsee them simultaneously. But not here, in the neat, tidy front lawn of the First World, sticking out like a congealed blood blister on smooth white skin.

UN-HABITAT’s background paper to the World Habitat Day 2014 (theme: ‘Voices from the Slums’) makes no mention of slums or similar settlements in the developed world. All facts and figures, issues and problems are about slums in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Only the USA and one European country, Spain, appear among the list of countries that held related events. Slums are part of history here. But when we make such comparisons where does that leave people such as the Aboriginal peoples, the First Australians? Many ordinary Australians seen in John Pilger’s 2013 documentary, Utopia were hardly aware or concerned about how their indigenous counterparts were still being institutionally invisibilised. Or that many still live in, yes, slums, with still dismally low lifespans and still prevalent trachoma, a disease practically unknown among White Australians. Over 14 million Americans today live in ‘high-poverty neighbourhoods’, aka slums.

I am not trivialising the Calais camp conditions or the hardships and mental trauma experienced by those who have lived through the horrors of war. I am arguing we cannot afford to see these horrors as particular horrors, horrors of a particular disaster or place. Nobody should live in slum conditions, even in ‘peace’.

As for volunteering, I met some amazing people, and I thought the charity was doing an excellent job, despite all the contradictions. I would volunteer again, possibly in a ‘peace’ zone and most likely in the kitchen.


Lotika Singha is a PhD student in the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York. Her research explores the ‘problem with a name’ in feminism, paid domestic work, through the lens of outsourced domestic cleaning in the UK and India. Twitter: @lsnul

Image credit: Middle panel: Rajeev Singha; Side panels: Lotika Singha