After reading and seeing the media reports of the biggest refugee crisis to hit Europe since the Second World War, I decided to accompany the largest British aid convoy to have left for Europe last weekend. More than 50 vans arrived with the ‘One Nation’ convoy in Calais on Friday morning, with food, clothes, tents and sleeping bags to be distributed to refugees in France, Germany, Austria and beyond.
I shadowed the distribution team that were allocated to the infamous “Jungle” – a propaganda term I reluctantly use as it dehumanises the plight of those who in reality, are living in sub-human shantytowns.
What I witnessed with my own eyes would remain in my conscience till my dying breath. Seeing people in the thousands, living in makeshift tents made of plastic bin liners and twigs, the smell of urine and excrement, men, women and children walking around in torn clothes troubled me deeply. I spoke to Syrians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Libyans and Afghans who were escaping wars either led or instigated by the West.
The dire humanitarian situation aside, I wanted to take this opportunity to share the following pieces of advice for those who are planning to join aid convoys going to Europe. It is important that we safeguard ourselves from any physical or legal harm, as well as maximising the benefits in terms of delivering aid to refugees.
So here are ten tips I strongly suggest are implemented before, during and after an aid convoy:
1. Inform your local newspaper, councillor and MP before you go. This will keep important people notified of your travels, in case of any trouble with the British or European authorities who may question your intentions.
2. Keep a lawyer’s contact number at hand as you could be stopped, searched, questioned, and detained under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 at Dover port.
3. Do not carry excessive amounts of cash for no reason. Petrol and hotel money should be kept separately in Euros. Large amounts of cash will only raise unnecessary suspicions.
4. Make sure your vehicle is serviced and mechanically functioning before leaving the UK. Have a spare tyre, a pump, first aid kit, and anything else that is mandatory under EU law.
5. Be practical and strategic in the aid that you take. Don’t tell your local community to give “anything they can”, or else you’ll get everything from high heel stilettos, warn underwear to designer bags. Taking aid is not an excuse to have a spring clean. With winter approaching, adequate insulation, clothing and footwear will inevitably be required. It may also be worthwhile taking wood and metal beams for building material, tarpaulin, gas canisters for fuel, good quality pots and pans, as well as long-lasting ingredients for cooking.
6. Liaise with charities and aid workers on the ground. Do not arrive in Calais and other European refugee hot spots like cowboys, and decide to distribute the aid yourself.
7. Don’t go with vans full of aid with the intention to distribute it via a queuing system. Not only is this disempowering for refugees, but it is also chaotic. You will not be able to handle the influx of people queuing up and possibly fighting with each other. There is also a high possibility that the aid will not end up where it is most needed, since it isn’t tailored to what the people need, and many will later discard the aid or hoard it to sell to other micro-communities. You can avoid putting yourself in danger, as well as demoralising refugees by simply coordinating and communicating with existing charities and aid workers who know their way around the camps, and have established relationships with leaders from among the refugee communities.
8. Always remember that refugees are humans. They have dignity and self-respect. So don’t spend most your time taking selfies and Snapchatting. It is important that you get to know the people living in micro-communities and their leaders. Sit with them, have tea, coffee and snack with them, hear their stories and become one of their friends. By doing this, not only do you show that you actually care, you also learn about their specific needs and may be able to help source things for them; becoming someone of practical use.
9. Remember to check your vehicles before leaving a refugee camp. Desperate times can lead to people resorting to desperate measures. I was arrested and later released by French police after a Kurdish teenager sneaked into our van without us knowing. Spending time in police custody and possibly charged with human trafficking is the last thing you want!
10. Most importantly, take photos, videos, and document people’s experiences to raise awareness of this human calamity literally at our doorsteps. As noble and praiseworthy delivering aid to the needy is, ultimately it’s a short-term solution. As Britons, we must question why our government has been so hesitant and reluctant in taking a forthright approach to the current refugee crisis, whilst championing human rights and morality to the rest of the world.
Whilst in Calais, I met a Muslim chaplain from Liverpool, Adam Kelwick, and an aid worker for Human Relief Foundation, Waseem Iqbal. Facebookers have been kept informed with the situation on the ground with their daily reminders, lessons and stories from The Jungle. They help hundreds of British convoys arriving in Calais every day, by distributing aid fairly through appointed leaders within the refugee communities. This does not include their ongoing efforts in trying to build sustainable infrastructure within the camps, as well as raising awareness on the crisis through regular updates on social media.
It was reassuring to see that two British Muslims with help of others in the UK had taken a more holistic approach to the refugee crisis in Calais. This is an example which I feel we should all follow and support.