With an estimated 6,000 refugees living in a camp in Calais, a Lichfield plumber has now made two trips across the Channel to help those fleeing conflict in Syria and will make a third. Reporter Fern Gibson spoke to Dave Simcox about his experiences in the refugee camp…
In November 2015 Dave arrived in France where he would spend five days helping out in camp and staying at a local hostel.
He said: “You cannot be prepared for an experience like that in the jungle camp, it’s on the side of wasteland and is not fit for human habitation.
“It’s a vision of hell.”
The camp was only ever supposed to be temporary, but with more and more refugees coming over the border it has become a more permanent site.
“The residents have tried to normalise it and there are shops and restaurants in the camp,” Dave said. “There is a real lack of sanitation in camp though. There are cold water taps but only two, which is inadequate and there are portaloos, but too few and they are not clean enough.
“In camp they need things like large marquees that the refugees can gather in when they first arrive, adequate sanitation and a laundrette, as most of the residents only have one or two pairs of clothes.”
Refugees are continuing to arrive in Calais and are erecting more and more makeshift homes.
Dave added: “The biggest problem is the lack of official recognition from the government and even charities. Because it’s an illegal camp, no one wants to get involved.”
As winter approaches accommodation is the priority of many charities who are working in the camp. Many refugees live in tents which are not suitable for the cold harsh weather conditions.
Dave said: “Flat pack shelters are being built, but with winter fast approaching not enough are being put up quickly enough.
“I spent a lot of my time building shelters in the warehouse and repaired a window in the medical centre because it had been broken into.”
There are many charities which support and organise volunteers like Dave who are wanting to help refugees by matching their skills to some of the many tasks.
“Lots of people just turn up and it doesn’t really help,” Dave said. “Clothes don’t get sorted and distributed which results in clothes being piled up, trodden on and covered in dirt.
“After my first visit I knew I had to go back.”
Dave knew he wanted to do more for the refugees in Calais and after sharing his experience with his partner Ceri, she agreed to accompany him on his second visit to the camp.
“The second time it was easier for me personally as I was there with my partner,” he said. “I didn’t have to cope with separation and it’s hard to explain the situation without seeing it, but now she understands first-hand what it is like. We supported each other.”
Dave raised money for materials to take with him for his first trip, but the second visit saw a fundraising charity gig allow him to buy warm clothes from charity shops and sleeping bags for the refugees in preparation for the cold weather.
“The situation remains grim but there are some positive changes,” he explained. “The French Government have insisted that something is done in terms of improvement and the site is being cleared and levelled and services put in.
“There are shipping containers being brought in to make dwellings and I’ve heard that the first of those has now arrived on site.
“Charities are continuing to do what they can and there are improvements in camp, but in terms of the long term future, there is no overall plan.”
Dave said that most of the refugees in the camp want to get across the Channel to Britain.
“The French are generally known for being less kind to refugees based on the basis of the number of application rejections they make,” he added. “The camp residents believe in this myth that Britain is welcoming and that we all live together happily.
“This means that there is a continuous stream of people that are trying to get into lorries and onto trains often leading to death by accidents.”
Two days before Dave arrived in the camp a Sudanese man was killed on a main road in France by a lorry.
“His name was Joseph,” Dave said. “The driver didn’t stop at the scene and there was no further investigation.
“On the Saturday there was a march which was peaceful. Camp residents carried plaques saying ‘We are not animals’ and volunteers joined in too.”
On his first visit to the camp, Dave met Sofinee, a woman who runs a kitchen on site.
“She’s amazing,” he said. “She hands out over 1,000 meals a day so that people with nothing can at least get a hot meal. She cooks 6kg of rice each day in a pot and has a team of camp residents and volunteers who help her out.
“She has been there almost constantly since September and works seven days a week.”
The kitchen was built by bridge2, a Guernsey-based charity.
“I was asked by the founder if I could build an extension because they were running out of space,” Dave said. “I have already built the four walls and on my third visit I will be building the roof as I didn’t get time on my last trip.
“I am also going to make a compound as there are three or four caravans, one of which Sofinee and her husband live in, and the others are used for camp residents that have been hospitalised.
“One has leukaemia and needs frequent blood transfusions and somewhere to rest-up.”
Dave’s wife Ceri spent the first few days of the trip working in the warehouse sorting through the clothes and putting them in sizes and matching shoes into pairs.
For the remainder of the trip the trained nurse spent most of her time working in the medical centre.
“I went down one evening to see her and you feel really guilty having to close the medical facilities when there are still people waiting and you’re going to go back to the hostel and have a warm shower,” Dave said.
“But then you have to think that you are not any use to anyone if you are burnt out and I have seen many volunteers work to the state of collapse.”
Dave has decided that he will be devoting more of his time and efforts to the cause in 2016, including the creation of a basic website to exchange information with other volunteers.
“This will obviously involve more visits but I would also like to do something in terms of organisation,” he said. “The website would include a useful list of all the people involved, whether it’s related to food, building, distributing, the kitchen, medical or psychological support.
“So often I see Facebook groups saying that they want to get involved but don’t know what to do and who can help.
“Obviously there are people that can help but there is a wealth of confusing information and these pages need updating regularly as the situation is changing daily.”
More details on Dave’s trips to Calais can be seen on his blog.