Wednesday, August 4

Until the convoys return: Cambridgeshire charity finds new ways to help refugees in pandemic


This article is part of Changing the Narrative. The articles in this series are written by newcomers or journalists who participated in The Local’s training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

This simplicity is the greatest strength of this small organization. Short volunteer trips and fundraising efforts make volunteering more accessible. As a result, CamCRAG’s volunteer base is among the most diverse in the UK. Current volunteer members come from all walks of life and are between the ages of 16 and 80. This diversity has been a strength in the development of the charity’s various projects. More importantly, the carpool to Calais has allowed volunteers to build friendships with each other and a strong connection and commitment to the charity itself.

From the moment volunteers pack into carpooling, they begin to develop a personal connection to the cause. “That’s where you turn people into long-term activists,” says Elliot Harris, president of CamCRAG.

The volunteers are transferred to France and reserve a space in a local youth hostel. On site, volunteers will help local frontline organizations.

Most volunteers will not know any of the people they are helping, as they are working in distribution centers or preparing food, but that does not take away from the experience. These personal experiences of the volunteers have also been an important part in spreading the word about the charity and recruiting new members through word of mouth.

‘On humanitarian service’

Volunteers are a key part of the charity, which is why CamCRAG works to provide easily accessible volunteer opportunities. Short-term volunteer opportunities have allowed for a broader demographic of volunteers.

“Because normally how could you go and volunteer on the front line with a humanitarian organization and put your life on hold entirely?” Harris explains the reasoning behind the charity’s operating model. In a similar attempt to remove barriers to volunteering, the charity offers some subsidized lodging places for volunteers with low income or benefits.


The team. Photo: CamCrag

CamCRAG volunteers provide a regular boost to local charities in France. Harris describes charity as a “kind of über humanitarian service.”

Before the pandemic restrictions were put in place, the charity used to send convoys every six weeks. This consistency and the know-how fostered by charity benefited front-line organizations.

Ponchos instead of tents

Participation at the grassroots level has left room for innovation. Working closely with other aid organizations has given CamCRAG members the opportunity to see what is needed and what works on the ground. The charity has developed a specialty in tent repair, thanks to the efforts of one particular volunteer. In 2019, CamCRAG experimented with a new idea: they collected hundreds of abandoned tents from music festivals and came together to repair the tents so they could be distributed to people in need, tagged, sorted and cleaned.

According to Harris, frontline aid organizations often struggle with donations that are in poor condition.

“We have the philosophy that when things come to Calais, everything we give to the local groups has to be really useful to them.”


A van loaded with usable supplies. Photo: CamCrag

Another project that the group developed based on feedback they received from aid organizations and the refugees themselves are blanket ponchos. Ponchos, unlike blankets, are easier for people to grab and are less likely to be confiscated as they are clothing. Ponchos are also easy and cheap for volunteers to make, which is why they work for a small charity like CamCRAG.

When the project was first presented, the charity sent a test batch and asked for comments.

“Every time they are distributed, we ask the front-line organizations to tell us what people think of them.”

Measuring the impact of your work in this way ensures that the group is focusing its efforts on meaningful projects and discarding those that recipients find useless. The charity encourages its weekend volunteers to speak to NGOs working on the ground and discuss their experience at home.

“We are people with many privileges and frankly this is a hobby for most of us, it is not life and death for us. So it is very important that we maintain that connection with the people on the front line and the people that we are. trying to be supportive, “says Harris,” We don’t do things just because it’s good for us. “

The charity says their small size has allowed them to adapt to changing situations, but the pandemic has proven to be a difficult challenge to tackle. The frequent trips that were at the heart of the charity have been canceled, as have their fundraisers for sleepovers and other activities. Trustees now have to develop new ways of interacting with their volunteers.

On the other hand, the situation has forced the charity to collaborate more with other groups. It has resulted in more coordinated efforts to deliver help where it is needed: UK charities have been able to book larger trucks that can deliver large quantities of pallets filled with donations to organizations working on the front lines in places like Greece and France.

“It’s actually cheaper … Maybe that’s how we should have done some of our stuff earlier,” admits Harris, but reinforces the importance of convoys in helping volunteers understand what they’re working for.

Harris sees this as an opportunity to build a long-term cohesive support network: “When the restrictions are finally lifted, what you will see will be a stronger, more integrated support network.”

The group is willing to develop a more standardized process for its work. “Being a volunteer doesn’t mean hobbyist,” says Harris. The logistics of delivering donations and raising funds will have to respond to the new challenges caused by the pandemic and Britain’s exit from the EU.


An ‘information station’ for refugees. Photo: CamCrag

As a small organization, CamCRAG has managed to establish itself locally. Harris says, however, that attitudes in the UK towards migrants and asylum seekers have grown more hostile over the years. He thinks that the rhetoric of the UK media and higher government representatives around “activist lawyers” has succeeded in convincing the public that migration is a threatening issue. In October, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was criticized for attacking the integrity of the legal profession for calling immigration lawyers “left-handed lawyers” and “benefactors”.

As the charity grows, their focus has expanded from humanitarian aid to politics, and they are campaigning for longer-term solutions to migration. The group is supporting the local refugee resettlement program in Cambridgeshire. They help new families settle in the area in a variety of ways, from advocating for their problems to purchasing household items.

Camcrag is also campaigning for more humanitarian routes to be provided for asylum seekers to reach Europe, including improving the chances of family reunification and offering visas on humanitarian grounds. The small charity continues to direct its efforts where it can be most helpful.

Villa Mirva is a freelance multimedia journalist, currently studying International Relations at Anglia Ruskin University.




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