“Volunteer Humanitarianism”: How Volunteers Helped Calais Asylum seekers fight the Lack of Institutional Support

Untrained volunteers often get a bad reputation in the humanitarian system. But in the wake of emergencies, local and international citizens can step in to provide essential services and advocacy where formal organisations fail. Researcher Elisa Sandri looks at the volunteers groups that took charge of humanitarian aid in ‘the Jungle’ camp of Calais, filling a void left by international institutions. This grassroots work offered aid –  while also advocating for reform, and challenging the state.

By Carolina Are

Picture of ‘The Jungle’ Camp in Calais – Wikimedia Commons

Life In The Jungle

The Calais camp – widely referred to as ‘the Jungle’  – made international headlines through 2015 and 2016, as its population of asylum seekers swelled during the so called “refugee crisis”. Before it was ultimately demolished in October 2016, the camp housed an approximate ten thousand people.

Despite this huge population, the Jungle did not have legal status as a refugee camp; it was not approved by the the local authorities or the French government; and it received very little official aid or humanitarian support. The conditions were appalling – Vickie Hawkins, UK executive director of MSF, described them as: “Some of the worst that I have seen in 20 years of humanitarian work”.

The high levels of need and lack of support prompted grassroots organisations to mobilise and provide aid. Run by volunteers,  these groups increasingly took on the responsibility of managing the Jungle.

Volunteer Humanitarian Assistance

Sandri’s research is a case study of a grassroots organisation working in the Jungle. It draws on her first-hand volunteer experience, as well as semi-structured interviews with volunteers and the project leader. The organisation she studies offered a range of services in the Jungle, as well as organising awareness and fundraising campaigns, and providing support for asylum seekers in the UK. At its peak, the group had 20 core members, and approximately five hundred casual volunteers, who came  from across Europe.

During their time in Calais, these volunteers operated like many traditional aid organisations: they administered aid and established a complex network of humanitarian assistance. They cooked hot meals; sorted and distributing donations; built temporary shelters and toilets; organised recreational activities; and contributed to the general upkeep of the camp. At the same time, these volunteers were doing something quite different from official aid groups: their work in the (illegal) camp was a form of civil disobedience.  Volunteers were vocal in advocating for reform of French and UK policies towards asylum seekers.

Sandri describes this grassroots humanitarian aid as “volunteer humanitarianism”, and argues that it can be seen as a “symbol against the violent border practices across Europe”. More generally, this work forged a connection between humanitarianism and activism, and it stood in opposition to the “humanitarian machine” and the wider regime of neoliberal governmentality in which it is embedded.

Defining Characteristics of ‘Volunteer’ Humanitarianism

Sandri describes the group’s ‘Volunteer humanitarianism’ as organic, flexible and pragmatic. These traits could be seen from the summer of 2015:

“Volunteer humanitarianism was not supervised or funded by international aid agencies or governments, but based entirely on the work of volunteers and financed by donations from the public. Volunteers were not trained before going to the camp and generally had no previous experience of working with refugees or in a humanitarian emergency. Because of this lack of expertise, improvisation played a central part in volunteer humanitarianism as volunteers learnt new skills and assumed different roles depending on what was needed.”

Sandri found that volunteers were not initially motivated by political considerations or mobilised by political activism, but by humanitarian concerns. They weren’t previously operating elsewhere and didn’t identify as political or faith-based groups. However, shortly after starting their humanitarian work in Calais, many grassroots organisations started leading activist campaigns, demanding for change to asylum policies and for more humane treatment of refugees.

Volunteer Humanitarianism: An Alternative To The ‘Humanitarian Machine’

Although humanitarian volunteers in Calais were not professionals in this field and had never previously engaged in humanitarian aid work, their actions differ from many ‘D.I.Y. aid’ or ‘private aid initiatives’. Notably, they were engaged with a humanitarian emergency in Europe, rather than a development project in the Global South. Sandri adds that this was not the first humanitarian emergency in the Global North assisted by volunteers, noting that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, an extended network of volunteers worked in emergency relief operations in New Orleans, helping to re-establish some kind of normality.

For Sandri, “volunteer humanitarianism is a much more complex activity that does not fully fit into the notion of governmentality,” as it turned against governments by creating strong activist networks as a reaction to the void left by institutions. She adds that since both French and British governments neglected to recognise the Jungle outright due to fears of creating pull-factors for refugees and were not involved in the assistance of refugees in Calais, volunteer humanitarianism also surpassed the notion of ‘post-bureaucratic humanitarianism’. They didn’t collaborate with governments to provide humanitarian assistance, they didn’t become complicit in border regime practices. Instead, by simply being in the camp, grassroots organisations challenged the position and practices of the state.

Sandri argues that, because of its informality, “volunteer humanitarianism provides an alternative to the ‘humanitarian machine’, as it offered humanitarian aid to refugees without the institutional structures and expertise of established aid organisations,” creating new social spaces where volunteers engaged in sociality and affectivity. Their work demonstrated that neoliberal systems do not just lead to utilitarian and rational subjectivities, but also to compassion, empathy and other modes of social relations. She adds that volunteers’ actions are a symbol against the strict and violent policies of migration across Europe.

Read the full article – ‘Volunteer Humanitarianism’: volunteers and humanitarian aid in the Jungle refugee camp of Calais’ by Elisa Sandri, in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studieshere.