31 August, 2023 - By Frances Walker

48 Hours in Calais

At the end of July, West London Welcome’s English Language Coordinator, Nicci Golland, and three of our volunteer teachers, Frances Walker, Darra McFadyen and Mary Wyman, spent a weekend assisting Care4Calais with its vital work providing emergency support to asylum-seeking people in Calais and Dunkirk. Here Frances gives an account of their experiences.

Arriving in Calais

On Saturday morning, we approached Care4Calais’s warehouse, located a few miles along the coast from the ferry terminal in Calais. None of us apart from Nicci, a relative veteran of volunteering in Calais, had a clue what to expect. We needn’t have been worried: the charity knows exactly what it’s doing and manages each group of 20-30 volunteers efficiently and effectively. Briefings are detailed and informative, ensuring there are no surprises and explaining why guidelines must be followed.

It’s a long day, starting with a briefing at 9.30am and finishing with a debrief at 6pm. The day has two distinct parts: the morning is spent in the warehouse, preparing the various support services which are offered to asylum-seeking people between 2-5pm every day, whatever the weather or time of year; and the afternoon is spent supporting asylum-seeking people in various ways.

Helping in the warehouse

Warehouse support includes filtering and sorting donations; preparing food packs; checking sufficient supplies are in place for the afternoon activities; ensuring the warehouse remains clean and functional; and loading up the vans for the afternoon. Between the four of us we handled quite a range: shopping for biscuits; counting tea-bags into packs; wiping down tables and chairs; clearing out unusable donations by taking them to the dump and recycling centre; checking donated pharmaceutical items (a surfeit of hand sanitiser was apparent); stocking the games and art resources; and sorting jackets into sizes for distribution.

At noon, lunch is prepared and served by three volunteers, followed by the allocation of jobs for the afternoon session with a comprehensive briefing on what to do and expect, including possible pitfalls.

Reaching asylum-seeking people

Since the so-called ‘Calais Jungle’ was demolished in 2016, there is no single site at which to reach asylum-seeking people since they now have to bed down wherever they can, with or without tents or sleeping bags. This was the most disturbing thing about the whole experience – watching groups of young men literally disappear into the long grass to sleep without any facilities whatsoever to support them. So Care4Calais sets up in different venues throughout the week, the largest in an area known as Hospital which reaches the most people, where the charity goes four times a week. Other sites, such as a disused car park in central Calais, are also used regularly.

Providing direct support

The services offered range from the practical to the social. A supply of electricity, provided by mobile generators, enables people to charge up their phones (I’ve never seen so many phones being charged at one time); there are games, including football, cricket and board games (dominoes is both popular and highly competitive); sewing of clothes and making of friendship bracelets; bike repairs; hot drinks, namely tea, coffee, and hot chocolate, all served with a strict ration of two biscuits; English lessons; litter picking (the charity works hard to ensure that the Calais authorities have no cause for complaint about its work); and haircuts, including electric razors, blades and scissors. Haircuts were carried out by asylum-seeking people themselves, who spent ages cutting hair and shaping the beards of their friends – this was clearly particularly important for people’s self-esteem.

A medical team dress wounds and cuts and help with health issues. This team comprises a particular group of volunteers with appropriate knowledge and training.

There’s also a distribution service which operates between 3-5pm. Over the two days we were there, 200+ jackets were handed out – none new, but all in good condition and all different. It’s this service which demonstrates just how well-organised Care4Calais is. The choice and distribution is carefully controlled to avoid potential arguments over the choice of jacket (those with hoods are definitely more popular), queue-jumping, and to ensure everyone is treated fairly.  That this control is necessary was demonstrated on the Sunday at Dunkirk when another charity was distributing food and things became so heated, the charity had to shut down and withdraw. But I hasten to add that this control is handled with good humour, and most of those queuing understand the need for it.

All the afternoon activities provide good opportunities to talk to and engage with the asylum-seeking people, which you are strongly encouraged to do. Once people’s phones are sufficiently charged, music starts drifting over the site and there are always a few people dancing. Even when it rains, people squat down under canvas coverings to continue whatever they’re doing – charging phones, playing Jenga, or cutting hair.

Some phone credit is usually provided, and this was considerably augmented thanks to Nicci, who is an administrator for a small charity called Phone Credit for Refugees and Displaced People (PC4R). PC4R provides £20 worth of credit a month for those living in refugee camps around the world. Over the two days, Nicci signed up over 30 people and Care4Calais plans to carry on offering this service via one of the team leaders.

“Since the so-called ‘Calais Jungle’ was demolished in 2016, there is no single site at which to reach asylum-seeking people, since they now have to bed down wherever they can, with or without tents or sleeping bags.”

“Haircuts were carried out by asylum-seeking people themselves, who spent ages cutting hair and shaping the beards of their friends – clearly particularly important for people’s self-esteem.”

Who we supported

While we were volunteering, all those needing support were men, most of them young and many from Sudan, particularly at the Hospital site where some 80% were Sudanese and the rest Afghans (read here for a good summary by Care4Calais of why there are more men than women or children in Calais – men are often primary persecution targets, and women and children are more likely to get housing support in France so not as often seen on the street). 

Nationalities of asylum-seeking people were more mixed in central Calais, and included a few French homeless people. Rather disconcertingly, some of the asylum-seeking people spoke to us about how much they wanted to reach the UK, where they believed they would be treated fairly – despite the UK hostile environment we know well. Others were worried about the UK’s Rwanda plan, and Care4Calais hands out leaflets in different languages, detailing an emergency number they can contact if threatened with being sent to Rwanda after they arrive in the UK.


Who was volunteering

There were 28 volunteers while we were there (the maximum is 35), with two team leaders who work there longer-term. The majority were British young women, with one or two from France, Japan and Poland. There were also some older people, including one man who had come to criticise and stayed to help. It’s encouraging that so many young people are willing not only to give up their time but to spend money getting to and staying in Calais. Like many of the volunteers, we did not arrive empty-handed thanks to generous donations from friends and supporters of West London Welcome. We were able to provide much-needed coffee and tea, lots of additional phone credit and five new footballs.


Care4Calais is like a well-oiled machine which the volunteers drive under the good-natured guidance of the team leaders. We were glad to be able to offer practical support to people in extraordinarily testing circumstances for them, as well as aid our own understanding of what many of the people we know at West London Welcome have been through.


Frances Walker is a volunteer English teacher at West London Welcome.