These volunteers found global development field experience in an unlikely place

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Struggling to cope with an influx of asylum seekers, Europe is becoming one of its own largest recipients of foreign aid, data released Tuesday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation revealed.

Governments have largely left it to aid organizations to house, protect, feed and process the refugees, many fleeing the war in Syria and other conflicts. Local and international groups — some decades old, others only around for a few months — are now working in Greece, France and deeper into Europe.

The camp in Calais, France — which shelters more than 3,000 asylum seekers, most of them seeking passage to the United Kingdom — is now a bustling microcosm of the crisis. Its rubble-strewn dunes play host to an unexpected transplant from the developing world. From obstinate local authorities to water shortages to teargas, the conditions more resemble the fringes of conflict than the French coastline.

“When I arrived here six months ago, the weather was still quite nice out on the sand dunes. I’d just got back from Kenya and I thought, this feels familiar,” Hettie Colquhoun, 23, who coordinates aid distribution for the Calais and Dunkirk camps, told Devex. “It shouldn’t have been familiar, but it was.”

Colquhoun is one of the camp’s mostly volunteer workforce, which ranges in size “based on the time of year or even the day of the week,” from eight and 200, she said. Colquhoun came to the camp with some experience working in food security overseas but no previous experience with refugees. She quickly gained the much-needed skills to head aid distribution for the occupants of the two mile-wide camp.

“I think [Calais] is unique in its setup, because it’s happened so quickly,” she said. “But in a way, we find ourselves taking on similar systems that you would see in larger organizations, we’re just having to do it quicker than they did.”

Her job, like that of many other long-term volunteers in the camp, keeps shifting. When French authorities demolished the southern part of the camp last month, Colquhoun and others went from sorting clothes and goods to distributing health and safety supplies in anticipation of violent clashes and teargas.

“As things have started to calm down, it’s been about reopening, setting up new distribution points, getting teams set up, and getting that sense of normality back on track and getting our systems back up in a rearranged camp,” she said.

Many of the camp’s two-dozen organizations — from newcomers Belgium Kitchens and Help Refugees to stalwarts Medecins Sans Frontieres and L’Auberge des Migrants — encountered the most difficulty working with and around French authorities, aid workers said.

Olivier Marteau, project coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres in the camp, said the complexities and frustrations of working with French authorities were one of the “most surprising things reminding me of being in Afghanistan,” where he previously worked for MSF.

Colquhoun agreed; learning to navigate logistics and permissions with French authorities and the police who patrol the perimeter of the camp “is where I believe Calais shares a lot with the camps overseas.”

While most of the volunteers are short-term, some long-term volunteers and employees have taken part in the evolution of the camp’s aid ecosystem. For them, it’s a part-grassroots, part-international humanitarian climate — and they are learning both skills first-hand. Colquhoun and others like her hope to continue working in the humanitarian system.

For more information about working or volunteering in Calais, Colquhoun pointed to a Calais volunteers’ Facebook page used for coordination and logistics:

Many of the organizations looking for employees and volunteers in Calais and Dunkirk process volunteers through L’Auberge des Migrants:

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About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.