Last weekend my husband and I volunteered with Calais Kitchens, preparing food packages for people living in the makeshift camps collectively known as ‘the Jungle.’ We spent our time working in a warehouse run by volunteers who receive, organize, and distribute donations to the thousands of migrants living within the camps. The experience prompted me to think more about the perceived apoliticism of humanitarian assistance.
Ostensibly we were there to provide people living in desperate conditions with food assistance – to make their lives within the camps a little more bearable. Yet in doing so, I believe we were supporting the efforts of migrants to frustrate the UK border regime. The goal of all the people living in the camps is to make the crossing from France across the Channel to the United Kingdom. To reach this goal, people scale barbed wire fences, sneak onto trucks and train carriages, and try to evade police detection – no small feat given the amount of police presence around the Calais port. People attempt to make the crossing night after night, often waiting in the camps to find a smuggler who will help facilitate their journey.
Simple humanitarian acts help people in their efforts to reach the United Kingdom. By providing food, clothing and other necessities people may be able to stay in the camps longer and make repeated attempts to cross the border. Donated items may even become tools for making the crossing. For example, people may use layers of donated clothes as protection against barbed wire fencing.
Rather than claim that my efforts are merely responsive to human needs, I embrace the politics of humanitarian action. I support people’s efforts to enter the United Kingdom. Many of the people living in the Calais camps come from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria. Situations in their home countries worsen, yet the options for legal migration to the United Kingdom, and Europe more widely, continue to dwindle due to ever tightening immigration laws and border control measures. In a very small way, volunteering in Calais allowed me to show practical solidarity with these people and say, through actions, that I will not be silent about unjust and inhumane border policies.