Living in small-town Germany, playing the church organ is pretty nice. But even though I help out remotely with the work of Are You Syrious (an advocacy and humanitarian organisation based in Croatia) I feel the need and want to do more.
So on Monday I will be joining the organisation Roots in Dunkirk, France. Roots works in an area near Dunkirk where people gather in a make-shift camp. Helen Tennyson, a frequent volunteer a Roots, and an excellent friend, wrote a Special article for Are You Syrious. Part of that article is published below.
I’m excited to travel to France on Monday. It’s a selfish excitement, I’ll get to meet new people, learn new things and have a break from my normal routine. However, I also know that the work is important, it’s easy to become numb to the news in the media, the number of people suffering becomes nothing more than figures. But every statistic represents real people and with individual stories. And those individual stories contribute to a wider, global narrative of racism, discrimination, persecution, oppression and human rights abuses.
Over the years, I’ve asked my friends and contacts to support different projects that I’ve become involved with. If you are able to, donations to Roots enable them to pay for fuel for hot showers and mobile phone charging, two things I would certainly not like to live without. Thank you.
Click here to donate.
Stand by for updates from my time there, and feel free to comment and get in touch with any questions. Here's Helen's piece giving plenty of details about Root's work, originally published on Medium here.
AYS Special: Dunkirk, France — Roots reflection on the year.
Roots is a French association working in Grande Synthe, an area of northern France close to Dunkirk, providing services to people living in the informal camp located on that site. The camp used to be predominantly made up of families, largely from the Middle East, but in the last year, due to the conditions in Calais being so hostile, we have seen a lot more diversity in terms of the demographic of people staying there. The number of people in the area fluctuates, and can be anything between 300 and 1000 people, depending on the time of year and the weather.
Everyone here wants to reach the UK for one reason or another. Over the summer, for example, we found that numbers in the camp were lower because there was a long period where the sea was relatively calm, and so people were able to leave more easily. At the moment (Christmas 2022) there are about 500 people living there to whom we provide services on a daily basis.
A few years ago, Roots was a much smaller organisation that primarily focused on recycling batteries into charging packs which were distributed by other organisations to people who needed them. We also took care of maintaining the camp area as a living space, including cleaning water points and removing litter, as well as conducting basic repairs on broken facilities there. Our work has always been environmentally influenced. Climate action is everyone’s responsibility, and so waste, and how we use and dispose of waste, is really important. We repurposed batteries, but also tables to provide charging and now we have built showers and water points out of all sorts of repurposed materials. Our main project running at the moment is to provide a constant source of water to people living in the camp.
“All activism is linked and our work is as much linked to climate action as anything else we do.”
It is an ethical difficulty for us as an association that works environmentally to be using so much diesel driving around water. One of our goals for the next year is to buy an electric van so that our carbon emissions are lower. To fund it will be a challenge, but all activism is linked and our work is as much linked to climate action as anything else we do. Most of what we build is made from materials we have repurposed or recycled into things we can use. The containers we use to make shower cubicles and water points (they’re called intermediate bulk containers or IBCs) are donated, and our charging tables and barbershop were also built in our warehouse from other ‘waste’ materials. As much as we have grown over the last 18 months, our original ethos remains the same. We are committed to our original environmental approach, but our first and foremost aim is to maintain a standard quality of living for the people in the Grande Synthe camp.
In November 2021, there was a huge camp eviction. Small camp evictions are really common, they can occur from once a week or two, to every day. These involve police removing tents and belongings from people and clearing the area for an extended period of time, but usually people are able to return to the area later the same day. Big evictions are less common, and involve moving the whole camp to a new area, often bringing in machines to turn up the ground of the previous camp to make it uninhabitable. Evictions are the product of the “hostile environment” policy employed by governments on both sides of the Channel. They are used in an attempt to make people feel unsettled, both physically and mentally, and to stop people from making a stable life and a home where they are. They are inefficient and wasteful in every regard, and are distressing to witness, let alone be a part of.
That big eviction resulted in people being moved to a site that had no access to running water. In previous camps there had always been access to water, with water points put in by the state which we had maintained through jet washing and providing soaps and other hygiene products we had received. Since that eviction, the role of Roots has changed considerably. We responded to the situation and so built water points from repurposed IBCs and installed them in the new camp. We engineered a system with another IBC in the back of our van that could pump water from the source (about an hour and a half on foot from people’s living space) into our IBC and then into the water points we had installed. The water project has meant that Roots has undergone considerable growth since last year. We’ve been running water all day, every day, and this has given time to run other projects alongside that one. We now run charging and hot showers in conjunction with other organisations, and we are working on having new projects set up in the warehouse as well.
“Cooperation is essential to effective action and so we try to talk with people as much as we can.”
We work closely with other organisations to provide consistent and useful services. This includes No Border Medics, a new organisation, as well as Mobile Refugee Support, to try to tackle the scabies outbreak in camp. We combine our hot showers with the scabies treatment from the medics and a set of new clothes from MRS to try to make the treatment as effective as possible.
We also work closely with the people occupying the space so we can make sure that what we provide is useful and wanted. We have made sure that the barbershop runs alongside the showers, for example, because of people giving feedback that they would like to be able to have mirrors and shave after the showers. Cooperation is essential to effective action and so we try to talk with people as much as we can. The nature of what we do enables this, because our services run for extended periods of time making it easier to develop relationships and ask for feedback from everyone.
We work not only with people on the ground, but also with the state. Recently we have been involved in meetings with local authorities (who must remain anonymous for job security at the time of writing), to try to resolve the issue of safe water access. As an organisation, our overall goal is to not have to provide these services. It is the state’s job to fulfil its basic human rights obligations, such as providing access to water and power. At the moment, France is failing in its role as a human rights promoter, and it is actively obstructing access to water. In Calais, police have repeatedly slashed water points to stop people on the move from having access, and there have been examples of this in Grande Synthe too. A few months ago the CRS (a branch of the French police) conducted a routine eviction and slashed our central camp water point. It served no purpose other than to promote violence and fear. Our other water points remained intact, so people still had access to water, and when we replaced the water point it was not damaged again. In evictions, the destruction of other people’s property is the goal, and it is a huge waste of time, money and resources.
As an association, when it comes to evictions we are privileged. Despite the odd incident such as above, our equipment is normally neither removed, nor damaged — we are not the main target of police brutality. It is usually reserved for people living in the camp, who are continually harassed, subjected to confiscations and arrests, and forced to witness violent acts against their property (and persons) on an all too regular basis. The tactics that the police employ are oppressive and shameful. They create an atmosphere of fear and fatigue and yet do nothing to stop the flow of people coming to northern France. The play out of evictions is always the same, people are warned, they leave, the police destroy, and people resist and rebuild. It is a macabre dance that all parties seem to be trapped in, but as long as these actions continue, we will too.
There will always be violence at borders, so long as borders exist, but there will also always be those who fight for change, peace and freedom of movement for all.