In late July, early August of 2015, various "ordinary" people around the UK were moved by negative press about migrants and refugees in Calais; by haunting images of the plight of thousands of people fleeing their home countries in search of peace, safety, work and a future; and by a perceived lack of determination to help on the part of the British Government. One by one, small groups of individuals used the power of social media and fundraising initiatives to "do something".
The response from the public was unexpected and overwhelming - and many ordinary people became "extraordinary" in terms of their efforts to show solidarity with and support for men, women and children just like them.
Suddenly, these early responders found themselves inspiring people around the country to set up their own local groups to support the refugees in Calais -who by this time were numbering some 3000. It soon became clear to a number of the groups that the French NGOs, L'Auberge Des Migrants, Secours Catholique and Salam, who had been working with the refugees for many years, were inundated by the donations and volunteers arriving in Calais and that the sensible thing to do would be to work with them and support them. Meetings were held, systems were discussed, plans were made and slowly but surely order began to emerge out of chaos.
Within a short space of time, some of the movements had grown so big and raised so much money they felt duty bound to seek charitable status as a form of governance. The money continued to pour in, and volunteers began to register in their hundreds. Dentists, doctors, nurses, first aiders, solicitors, teachers, builders, carpenters, plumbers, chefs, psychotherapists, artists, musicians and many others began offering their professional expertise.
Teenagers, students, single parents, entire families, people on work breaks, and pensioners, too, headed over to Calais to offer their general help - sorting donations in the warehouses, helping with the waste problems on site, preparing and serving food in the kitchens set up by volunteers, helping the builders and carpenters create and erect winter-proof shelters.
Back home, thousands of people around the country busied themselves fundraising, and collecting and sorting aid so that the supplies continued to find their way to the camp.
In December 2015, numbers in the camp were estimated at between 6,500 and 8,000 people. Volunteers were regularly delivering aid to two warehouses and helping sort and distribute it in the camp; three established kitchens were collectively providing some 5000 hot meals every day; and over 50 community kitchens across the camp were feeding around 3700 people daily. Then, as 2015 drew to a close there was a collective sigh of relief at the news that over 650 shelters had been constructed and over 80 caravans positioned in the camp, sheltering more than 3,000 people (including all the families.)
On 29th February 2016, following orders from the local authorities, demolition of the southern half of the camp began. This resulted in some of the refugees accepting the remaining places (out of the 1500 available) in what is known as the Container Camp - dormitories created in modified shipping containers. Many refugees opted to move into the Northern section of the camp, cramming their tents and shelters in amongst the sand dunes and rubbish. A significant number simply headed out of camp and set up home in squats and small camps along the coast.
The September census conducted by volunteers working with Help Refugees found there were 10188 people living in camp of whom 1022 were unaccompanied minors. On October 24th 2016 the French authorities began the process of evicting all the residents and demolishing the camp. The chaotic management of this process was a serious cause for concern for the volunteer groups on the ground who found themselves the only people prepared to take responsibility for providing food and bedding for those left stranded by officialdom. See here , here, here, here for more information.
People's commitment to the cause was inspirational.
Below, you can find details of those early responders.
Search for a local group here.