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28th September 2016

Rethinking pathos in the Calais Camp

Without reconsidering our entire approach to the refugee crisis, can we really alleviate the issues faced by those fleeing war and unrest?

This summer I visited the Calais refugee camp. There I assisted the charity Help Refugees, who run a project that aims to protect and care for the camp’s 9106 residents who have fled war and unrest in their native countries. Reflecting upon my experience my emotions are hugely mixed. When I look back at the fantastic volunteers I met and the incredible feats of human compassion, ingenuity and industry I experienced, I can’t help but feel hugely positive, almost elated.

Then, in stark contrast, instances of dismay when I think of over 9,000 desperate people arriving at our doorsteps unwelcome and unacknowledged by the government institutions that represent us. How such juxtaposition within human nature can exist is intriguing, and why, if these two sides are attempting to even each other out, is there such a disparity in the media coverage of the two?

I was based primarily in the warehouse, which is a short drive away from the camp itself. Here, on an ex-industrial site, can be found the nerve centre for the Help Refugees charity. From here, the rapidly growing camp is supplied in its entirety, from food to tents and bikes to toothbrushes; it can all be found under this roof. A hot meal for 2,000 is prepared every day; vats of curry the size of small bathtubs strenuously stirred, the chefs having to use their entire body weight in order to complete a single rotation of the paddle.

Daunted, I watched on, waiting to receive these beasts of utensils armed with nothing but a sponge and a bottle of Fairy liquid. Elsewhere in the warehouse dry food, clothes, tents, bikes and sleeping bags are sorted, tested, repaired and loaded into vans in order to be distributed in the camp.

A site run entirely by volunteers, that produces everything a group of thousands of people needs, is incredibly unique. I struggled to think of somewhere else, outside other refugee camps, where something like this had been achieved. Such a vast variety of services takes a huge amount of organising, especially when most volunteers, such as myself, only stay for a short amount of time.

All of this incentivised purely by compassion; it was massively exciting and addictive to be in the presence of such a project. Yet when a task or fellow volunteer didn’t hold my attention, my mind began to wander beyond my immediate surroundings; the reality and gravity of the situation scraping at the surface of my contentedness.

About a ten-minute drive from here, you can find evidence left from an indescribably different illustration of human nature. A small yet sizable example of the horrors inside the Calais refugee camp can be demonstrated by the situation for children there. At the last count, there were 865 children inside the Calais camp; 674 of these unaccompanied. The Dubs Amendment, which permits 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children entry into the UK from Europe, was passed over four months ago. Since then not one unaccompanied refugee child has been resettled in the UK under this law.

These children’s lives are in constant danger from trafficking for child labour or sexual exploitation, as well as the risk of attempting to board lorries and trains to gain illegal access into the UK. An estimated 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have gone missing since entering Europe, a truly horrifying figure. I find our continents neglect of these children very difficult to comprehend, made even more so when paralleled to the astounding compassion of volunteers in Calais.

For every tremendous act of benevolence poured into work being done by Help Refugees there is a seemingly equal and opposite void created by others’ cruelty and apathy. These responses show human nature paradoxically, in a clash against itself, compassion battling directly to clean up the leftovers of human indifference.

I struggle to find a satisfying conclusion to ensure our compassionate side triumphs in a war it is ostensibly losing. However, what can be observed is the lack of coverage projects such as the ones in Calais receive from the media. I myself uphold an almost dogmatic belief that human emotion is shared through our interactions with each other. Perhaps when people hear about the admirable work of volunteers that saves thousands of lives every day, they may be compelled to act compassionately themselves.

With this in mind, by taking some—but by no means all—of the focus away from the repeated coverage of awful events within the refugee crisis, and towards some of the fantastic work that is being done to prevent the worsening of these disasters, maybe we can do more to alleviate them in the future.

Our media’s love affair with the shocking and the controversial may be what normalises our own failure of refugees across Europe. What volunteers do across Europe to help refugees is given little coverage; a more rounded and sophisticated approach to media coverage that highlights not only the shocking disasters but the ways in which charities and individuals have stepped in to assist the situation, is needed. This is what this article has aimed to do, and it hopefully honestly represents my experience in Calais, which it must be said, overall, was a positive one.

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