‘Volunteer Humanitarianism’ in the Jungle of Calais

by Elisa Sandri

This article is dedicated to the memory of Giulio Regeni, PhD researcher, and to his family, whom I never met but I hope they’ll find peace and justice.

Calais, a quiet town in the North West of France overlooking the Strait of Dover, caught international public attention last year for the fast growing population of the makeshift refugee camp called the ‘Jungle’. In August 2016, the HelpRefugees census counted 9,106 people, including 676 unaccompanied minors, the youngest being eight years old. The census also found twenty nationalities, the majority of refugees coming from Afghanistan and Sudan, and a small minority from Ethiopia, Iraq and Syria. According to the UNHCR, the category of ‘refugee’ should include people uprooted by conflict, human rights abuse, natural disasters, environmental degradation and extreme poverty. The inclusion of poverty as a reason to flee blurs the distinction between refugee and economic migrant, therefore, in this article, the term ‘refugee’ encompasses both.

Since the early 2000s, refugees waited in the Jungle to cross the French-British border, but it was not an ordinary refugee camp: regular camping tents used as shelters, piles of rubbish, stench, people wading through thick mud, other people begging for food. Suffering was everywhere. MSF’s (Doctors without Borders) executive director, Vickie Hawkins, described the conditions in Calais as “the worst I have seen in twenty years of humanitarian work”. 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. Standard international norms for refugee protection and camp management, including sanitation, were absent. MSF and Doctors of the World were the only international humanitarian agencies there, mostly attending to healthcare needs.
The Jungle camp was dismantled in war-like scenes last October and its nine-thousand camp residents have been scattered around France. The research in this article was conducted before the residents of the Jungle were evicted.

International Refugee Protection

It is important to bear in mind that not all the refugees try to cross the British border illegally. According to the Dublin III Treaty (2003) refugees have legitimate rights to claim ‘safe passage’, in cases where they can be reunited with close family members already residing in a European country. However, because of complex British immigration policies and bureaucratic red tape, some of them are forced to wait in France with no assistance.

In addition to the Dublin Treaty, the Dubs Amendment (2016) committed the UK government to offer safe passage to unaccompanied refugee minors, though it did not specify how many. This commitment remains of particular urgency after figures were released at the beginning of 2016 regarding the very high numbers of unaccompanied refugee minors around Europe – nearly ninety-thousand – and the shocking revelation that ten-thousand of them went missing.

Engaging Lotus as a volunteer and a researcher

Due to the lack of support offered by official institutions and governments, as well as the proximity to Britain and the dreadful conditions the refugees lived in, British grassroots organisations, run by volunteers, increasingly took on the responsibilities of managing the Jungle. Volunteers traveled to Calais from Britain to help with different tasks: cooking hot meals; sorting and distributing donations; building temporary shelters and toilets; organising recreational activities; contributed to the general upkeep of the camp. The list of services and projects ran by volunteers was long, most of which were funded and supported with the help of social media.

The Jungle, November 2015


The Jungle, February 2016. Same spot as above after the intervention of volunteers.

I have been volunteering with Lotus (a pseudonym), one of the grassroots organisations that worked with refugees in Northern France, since September 2015. Lotus opened an array of different services in the Jungle, organised awareness and fundraising campaigns and partnered with other organisations to provide support for asylum seekers in the UK. At its peak, Lotus counted twenty permanent volunteers and many more casual volunteers, becoming one of the most active organisations in Calais, gaining the trust of international aid agencies, such as MSF.
After the Jungle was demolished, Lotus continued to work with unaccompanied refugee minors in France and in the UK, providing care and legal support.

The volunteers in Lotus became the subject of my study. Being one of the permanent volunteers gave me the chance to understand the internal dynamics of the organisation as well as comprehending the most critical issues concerning refugees in Calais. As I have witnessed the hardships of refugees in Calais, and as I have volunteered with Lotus, my research was based on the traditions of activist anthropology and engaged anthropology. It seemed logical to use these approaches for I have been an activist as well as a researcher in Lotus. I hope this article will contribute to broadening the knowledge of the Jungle and that it will lead, if not to action, at least to reflection.

‘Volunteer Humanitarianism’

The particular kind of humanitarian aid provided by grassroots organisations in the Jungle, which I have called ‘volunteer humanitarianism’, has special characteristics that make it distinct from other types of humanitarianism.
Volunteers are not professional humanitarians and generally they are not familiar with national and international refugee protection policies either. In Calais there were no official forms of aid being delivered to the refugees, and governments did not take the lead to ameliorate the conditions of the camp. The volunteers provided humanitarian aid independently, and for many of them this was the first time they engaged in humanitarian work. The majority of volunteers I met had never worked with refugees or in humanitarian emergencies before and because of their lack of experience, they had to become experts in humanitarian aid quickly. Improvisation, then, played a central part in volunteer humanitarianism as volunteers learned new skills and assumed different roles depending on what was needed. Lastly, differently from professionals, humanitarians in Calais were not only untrained but also unpaid, even when volunteering was a long-term, full-time commitment.

‘Improvised’ tea kitchen outside the distribution centre in Calais town. October 2015

What are the implications of delegating the care for the most vulnerable to volunteers? As a matter of fact, the outsourcing to civil society of public services can be seen as a fundamental trait of the neoliberal project. It is by situating economic interests within the networks of associative and voluntarist work, that citizens become governable, their membership to civil society being an expression of this process. This logic is part of what Foucault calls ‘governmentality’, a particular kind of rationality that strategically reproduces the needs and power of the state, maximising its powers by withdrawing from social responsibilities (such as welfare) and at the same time minimising economic costs (see also Harvey; Ferguson). Ferguson and Gupta 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, and international civil society in general.

However, volunteering in the Jungle does not fully fit into the neoliberal rationale of the ‘Big Society’, an idea encouraged by David Cameron’s government whereby civil society substitutes the state in community sectors, hence constituting “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.

It is also arguable that volunteer humanitarianism defies this neoliberal logic, for it has greatly contributed to spreading awareness about the Jungle and about the violence refugees are treated with. The work of groups like Lotus has played an important part in putting pressure on governments to do more about refugees in Europe. The fact that this type of humanitarian aid is carried out on Britain’s doorstep means it ceases to be a distant, abstract matter and instead it becomes an important domestic political issue. Indeed, humanitarian aid in Calais is overtly connected to politics, being a reaction to the recent restrictive European migration policies and the consequent gravity of the refugees’ plight. Differently from other humanitarian aid work that rests upon neutrality and apolitical involvement, then, volunteer humanitarianism openly partakes in activism and political debates. Volunteer humanitarians express their political inclinations both by doing humanitarian work in Calais and by doing activism in the UK, removing the veneer of neutrality. It follows that volunteer humanitarianism can be interpreted as a kind of activist humanitarianism, one that takes place across European borders and deals with inequality and injustice in the Global North.

This kind of aid also has its disadvantages. For example, the informality of the grassroots organisations means that their internal structures change very quickly depending on the commitment of the volunteers. Lotus has had a high turnover of volunteers and some projects had to be interrupted because of the lack of staff members. Owing to this, Lotus is increasingly inclined to recruit volunteers willing to commit long-term, in order to make the work more stable and reliable.

On the whole, 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 became daily events in the Jungle. Given their lack of experience in humanitarian relief, volunteers were concerned about these issues and worried they were not doing enough to protect vulnerable people. The police, they felt, 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.

My research situated this unique kind of humanitarian aid at the crossroads between humanitarianism, volunteerism and activism. The research on volunteer humanitarians has also brought to the fore some of the complex aspects of humanitarian aid work in general, such as the relationship between humanitarianism, neutrality and neoliberalism. The analysis of volunteer humanitarianism, then, can help to cast light on the tensions and inconsistencies that go hand in hand with humanitarian aid work.


Certainly, refugees will keep coming to Europe notwithstanding the inhumane treatment they receive there. For this reason, now more than ever, there is a need for a unified and coherent advocacy for the future of other European camps. Due to the limitations of this kind of aid, grassroots organisations need to pressure the relevant authorities to make sure that the future ‘Jungles’ will not solely rely on the support of volunteer humanitarianism, but will be looked after by governments and humanitarian aid agencies, such as UNHCR. This can only happen if European governments uphold the moral responsibility of guaranteeing refugees a dignified existence.

Elisa Sandri graduated with an MA in Anthropology of Development, with distinction, in January 2017. This post is an extract from her dissertation, ‘“Volunteer Humanitarianism” Across Close(d) Borders: Volunteers and Humanitarian Aid in The “Jungle” Refugee Camp of Calais’, which she will present at the Refugee Studies Centre (Oxford) triennial conference in March 2017.

Photo credits: Elisa Sandri


AADH (2015) Memorandum of the Dublin III Regulation. Freshfields Bruckhaus LLP. Available from http://aadh.fr/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/CONCISE-SUMMARY-Dublin-III.pdf [Accessed on 24th June 2016]
BOURGOIS, P. (1990) Confronting Anthropological Ethics: Ethnographic Lessons from Central America, Journal of Peace Research. 27(1):43-54
BRIMELOW, K. (2016) Violence Against Lone Child Refugees Is Escalating – Because We Ignore It. The Guardian. [Online] 4th August. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/04/violence-lone-child-refugees-uk-government-indifference [Accessed on 5th August 2016]
BURCHELL, G. (1991) Peculiar Interests: Civil Society and Governing ‘The System of Natural Liberty’. In Burchell, G., Gordon, C. & Miller, P. (eds.). The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. University of Chicago Press.
FERGUSON, J. (2010) The Uses of Neoliberalism, Antipode. 41:166–184
FERGUSON, J. and GUPTA, A. (2002) Spatialising States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality, American Ethnologist. 29(4):981-1002
FOUCAULT, M. (1991) Governmentality. In Burchell, G., Gordon, C. & Miller, P. (eds.). The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. University of Chicago Press.
HALE, C.R. (2006) Activist Research vs. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology. 21(1): 96-120
HARVEY, D. (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press. Introduction.
HAWKINS, V. (2016) France: MSF’s Work in Calais and Dunkirk Camps. MSF Online. [Online] Available from: http://www.msf.org.uk/france-msf-s-work-in-calais-and-dunkirk-camps [Accessed on 24th June 2016]
MICHEL, L.M. (2007) Personal Responsibility and Volunteering After a Natural Disaster: The Case of Hurricane Katrina, Sociological Spectrum. 27(6):633-652
ONG, A. (2007) Neoliberalism as a Mobile Technology, Transaction of the Institute of British Geographers. 32(1):3-8
REUTERS (2016) Nearly 90,000 Unaccompanied Minors Sought Asylum in EU in 2015. [Online] 2nd May. Available from: http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-europe-migrants-minors-idUKKCN0XT15M [Accessed on 4th August 2016]
SCHEPER-HUGHES, N. (1992) Death Without Weeping – The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. London: University of California Press. Introduction.
SCOTT, M. (2010) Reflections on the ‘Big Society’, Community Development Journal. 46(1):132-137
TOWNSEND, M. (2016) 10,000 Refugee Children Are Missing, Says Europol. The Guardian. [Online] 30th January. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/30/fears-for-missing-child-refugees [Accessed on 4th August 2016]
UNHCR (2006) The State of the World’s Refugees 2006: Human Displacement in the new Millennium. [Online] 20th April. Available from: http://www.unhcr.org/4a4dc1a89.html [Accessed on 3rd July 2016]


1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s