Volunteers and humanitarian aid in Calais

Volunteers and humanitarian aid in Calais

Calais, a quiet town in the north-west of France overlooking the Strait of Dover, has frequently made the headlines in the last two decades. The history of this border as a focal point for migration dates back to the 1990s (King, 2016; Rigby & Schlembach, 2013; Walters, 2008). At that time, hundreds of refugees from Kosovo, Kurdistan and Afghanistan camped in Calais, waiting to cross the Channel towards the UK. In 2015, the town caught international public attention due to  the fast-growing numbers in the makeshift refugee camp called the ‘Jungle’, which reached a population of nearly ten-thousand people in the summer of 2016. Help Refugees, one of the main organisations working in Calais, conducted a regular census of the camp and found twenty nationalities, the majority of refugees coming from Afghanistan and Sudan, and a small minority from Ethiopia, Iraq and Syria.

The Jungle was not an ordinary refugee camp: regular camping tents were used as shelters, there were piles of rubbish, stench, people wading through thick mud, other people begging for food. Standard international norms for refugee protection and camp management, including sanitation, were absent. Unlike other refugee settlements around the world, this camp remained unofficial, for it was not given legal approval by the local authorities or the French government. Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Doctors of the World were the only international humanitarian agencies there, mostly attending to healthcare needs.

Due to the lack of support offered by official institutions and governments, grassroots organisations, run by volunteers, increasingly took on the responsibilities of managing the Jungle. Volunteers from the UK, France and other countries travelled to Calais to help with different tasks: cooking hot meals; sorting and distributing donations; building temporary shelters and toilets; organising recreational activities; and contributing to the general upkeep of the camp. Most of the volunteers had never worked with refugees before and for many of them this was the first time they had engaged in humanitarian work. Improvisation plays a central part in ‘volunteer humanitarianism’ (Sandri, 2017) as volunteers learn new skills and assume different roles depending on what is needed.

Volunteers were able to help at crisis points but struggled to deal with more complex situations that arose in the camp. Trafficking, exploitation and violence were daily occurrences in the Jungle. Volunteers were concerned about these issues and worried they were not doing enough to protect vulnerable people. The police were not cooperating but ignoring what was happening in the Jungle, even when minors went missing. On many occasions, the police were actively hostile, violently attacking the camp with tear gas and taking refugees outside the camp to beat them. Volunteers were anxious about their own safety too but did not want to exacerbate tensions between the refugees and the French police. The lack of institutional aid was worrying not only because there was a deficit of basic services, but also because it put both refugees and volunteers at risk.

This outsourcing of basic humanitarian assistance to civil society can be interpreted as a fundamental trait of the neoliberal governmentality (Foucault, 1991). Ferguson and Gupta (2002) argue that governmentality transcends the boundaries of the state and can also be found within the transnational alliances between grassroots organisations, volunteer and activist networks. However, volunteering in the Jungle does not fully fit into the neoliberal ‘Big Society’ envisaged by David Cameron’s government – a project which constituted “a triumph in articulating and updating the neoliberal settlement”. Volunteering in the Jungle differs from the ‘Big Society’ because both French and British governments have neglected to recognise the Jungle outright due to fears of creating pull-factors for refugees. On top of this, unlike other humanitarian aid work that rests upon neutrality and apolitical involvement, volunteer humanitarianism has openly taken part in activism and political debates. Thus, it is arguable that volunteer humanitarianism unsettles this neoliberal logic, for it has played an important part in putting political pressure on governments to take more refugees in Europe.

Although aid in refugee camps is often understood as an extension of the state’s surveillance and disciplinary power (Malkki, 1996; Hyndman, 2000), the Jungle represents an interesting exception in the literature of camps, particularly in the European context. The Jungle was not administered by authorities or aid agencies, refugees performed some acts of citizenship inside the camp, such as building their own shelters or creating and naming the streets of the ‘Jungle’, and volunteers refused to collaborate with local authorities in the coercion of refugees into bureaucratic systems. Nevertheless, the deliberate neglect of the humanitarian problem in Calais and the strategies of ‘violent (in)action’ (Davies, Isakjee & Dhesi, 2017), ultimately reaffirmed the authority of the state. The Jungle was dismantled at the end of October 2016 with the use of bulldozers, teargas and other forms of violence. Camp residents were forced to flee once again and face an uncertain future.

Volunteer humanitarianism is characterised by informality, improvisation, together with a political critique of the state and its practices at the border. This kind of aid is situated at the crossroads between humanitarianism, volunteerism and activism. All in all, the Jungle serves as an example of how refugees and grassroots humanitarian actors can find alternatives to the formal ways in which international humanitarian aid is normally administered.

You can read a longer version of this article in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies and in Humanitarian Action and Ethics (Zed Books, forthcoming).


Davies, T., Isakjee, A. and Dhesi, S. (2017) Violent Inaction: The Necropolitical Experience of Refugees in Europe, Antipode. 2017: 1–22

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Foucault, M. (1991) Governmentality. In Burchell, G., Gordon, C. & Miller, P. (eds.) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hyndman, E. (2000) Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

King, N. (2016) No Borders – The Politics of Immigration Control and Resistance. London: Zed Books.

Malkki, L. (1996) Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization, Cultural Anthropology. 11(3): 377-404

Rigby, J., and Schlembach, R. (2013) Impossible Protest: Noborders in Calais, Citizenship Studies. 17 (2): 157–172

Sandri, E. (2017), ‘Volunteer Humanitarianism’: Volunteers and Humanitarian Aid in the Jungle Refugee Camp of Calais, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. 44(1): 65-80

Walters, W. (2008) Acts of Demonstration: Mapping the Territory of (Non-) Citizenship. In Isin, E.F. and Nielsen, G.M. (eds.) Acts of Citizenship. London: Zed Books.

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