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Calais migrants: Volunteers' harrowing tales during Covid-19 pandemic

As Covid-19 cases soared and volunteers left Calais “en masse”, 21-year-old Poppy Cleary from Kent was just on her way to the migrant camps...

I was merely halfway through my year abroad at City University Hong Kong, studying law, when I was recalled back to the UK due to the outbreak of Covid-19. In fact, I was told specifically: “Get on the next flight home, no matter how much it costs”.

Volunteers Noah Hatchwell, 19, Cara Marsh, 21, Poppy Cleary, 21, and Xanthe Hatchwell, 23, in Calais
Volunteers Noah Hatchwell, 19, Cara Marsh, 21, Poppy Cleary, 21, and Xanthe Hatchwell, 23, in Calais

Being back in Kent was incredibly disheartening. All of my university friends were still in Liverpool. All of my Faversham friends were spread across the country at their own universities. Even my younger sister was not home any more, having started studying at the University of Exeter shortly after I had moved to Hong Kong.

It wasn’t long before I decided to go to Calais to volunteer helping refugees with an organisation called Collective Aid.

I arrived in Calais just as the pandemic was reaching its peak. Most refugee organisations were pausing operations, and volunteers were leaving en masse daily.

A migrant camp in Calais. Picture: Poppy Cleary
A migrant camp in Calais. Picture: Poppy Cleary

Rumours were flying that even ferries were stopping, and that if you didn’t leave soon you’d be stuck in France, where, if you got ill, your family wouldn’t be able to help you or say goodbye.

I was once told by another volunteer: “This isn’t a video game; you don’t get a second chance at life.”

Nonetheless, I chose to stay. I have also been joined by fellow Faversham residents, Noah Hatchwell, 19, who like me attended Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, his sister Xanthe, 23, and former Kent College student Cara Marsh, 21, both of whom have volunteered in Calais helping refugees before.

French police next to tents lining the road in Calais. Picture: Poppy Cleary
French police next to tents lining the road in Calais. Picture: Poppy Cleary

Every day we encounter difficult situations and hear harrowing stories from the people we help. An encounter which resonated deeply with us occurred following an early morning walk around the jungle looking for people without tents.

One of our volunteers noticed a group of families outside the train station. In particular, aside from the young children, she noticed they were all wearing life jackets and were extremely wet. The explanation she was given is one we hear all too often, of their failed attempt at crossing the Channel, the disappointment of returning to Calais and returning to the camps only the night before they thought they had left behind.

They could not get train tickets to return to their camp in Dunkirk and so they had no choice but to begin the eight-and-a-half-hour walk back, their young children in tow. This took place at 6am. There was little we could offer them.

Another situation was meeting a family with a six-year-old child who had journeyed to Calais all the way from Kuwait. The mother once pulled our van over to tell us that her child hadn’t eaten in three days. They lived in a wooded area of the jungle, also home to hundreds of other people.

One morning the police staged a mammoth eviction, moving everyone out from the wooded area, and erecting fences around it, completely cutting off access, and enclosing many people’s tents and belongings inside. We were able to replace this family’s tent but we couldn’t replace every tent lost - we just don’t have the stock.

A migrant's battered shoes. Picture: Poppy Cleary
A migrant's battered shoes. Picture: Poppy Cleary

We got a call from the family a few days later asking us to come and meet them in the jungle. Despite how far they’d come, conditions in Calais were so bad that they had resolved to go back; the father wanted to return the tent before it got taken by the police.

As if the situation isn’t bad enough, we are now facing a tent crisis. Last year we received around 2,000 tents that had been left behind at festivals in the UK. They are salvaged from the fields and sent to us, where we can then distribute them to refugees in great need of shelter.

Covid-19 means most festivals have been cancelled, so we will not be receiving any festival salvage tent donations this year. We are having to fundraise £24,000 to buy the same number of tents we’d normally receive.

Even if we reach our target, and can replace the festival tents, we still never have enough to meet the need.

The French police aggressively evict the refugee camps every other day, making people move their tents, their belongings and themselves to a small roadside area. Within these operations the police often confiscate tents and belongings, meaning the reality is that we could give someone a tent one day, and the next morning the police take it from them.

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