The tragedy of what is occurring in Calais can be read in various media outlets online, so I will not take time here to rehash the details. What I will do in these two blog posts on my 24 hours there is highlight some of the opportunities for mobile that I saw while volunteering. Firstly, I will focus on my experience working in the donation processing warehouse in support of the refugees. In my subsequent post in April 2016, I will share the power and potential of mobile for refugees based on my visit to “The Jungle.”
In December 2015, a former colleague of mine posted on Facebook to encourage people to come volunteer at a warehouse in Calais which supports thousands of refugees now stationed there. On a whim, I decided to accept that invite. After taking an overnight bus to Calais Port, I was bleary-eyed but ready to start work since the more I moved, the less I would feel the damp cold that permeated my winter gear. My friend picked me up, and after a brief visit to the home where he was staying with other volunteers, we arrived at the warehouse around 8am. Almost immediately, I was presented with ideas for how mobile could help organize chaos.
Because I was with my friend, a long-serving member of the warehouse volunteer leadership, I took direction from him whenever he was able to offer it. However, it became clear quite quickly that pretty much everyone else was left to fend for themselves to identify a leader who could then tell them where they were most needed to do a job that wasn’t always straightforward to do. Additionally, people often turned up to volunteer unexpectedly, and those who did always had a mobile phone with them.
I wondered at this stage whether mobile registrations would be a useful organizing tool. Before arriving, people could be required to indicate their interest in volunteering, their skills, and their dates of arrival and departure. People who arrived without registering could then be turned away if they arrived unexpectedly, which would help diminish the early morning confusion I witnessed.
For those who had registered, they could be organized to contribute to work based on their skill sets and time they planned to be in Calais. A mobile-based “welcome pack” with the names, photos, and contact numbers of volunteer leaders, a messaging service to facilitate communication among the volunteers present that day, along with an overview of the volunteer work they’re expected to perform, might help eliminate the hour of time I saw wasted from people standing around not knowing what to do. The volunteer hours lost here totaled at least 20 since that was the number of people I was able to count hanging around idle for that amount of time. Overall, the efforts I witnessed with the human resources were commendable, but there was also a great deal of waste when compared to the urgency of what needed to be done.
Further to the point of what we needed to do, we were responsible for sorting the mountains of donations that were being sent to the warehouse from all over Europe. I was assigned to the shoe department and had to sort shoes by type and size. Again, while the outpouring of support from the continent was overwhelming, it was incredibly disappointing to see how much was being brought to the warehouse that was not actually going to be useful for the refugees.
The majority of the people in “The Jungle” are men and young boys in their teens or older. The condition of the space that “The Jungle” inhabits is cold, wet, and muddy. So why were there so many items of women and children’s clothing donated, including cocktail dresses and bikinis? Why were there sandals and shorts being sent? And why on Earth were people sending items that were so worn out, dirty, and/or otherwise dilapidated that they wouldn’t even be accepted by a charity shop?
To illustrate how ridiculous the situation with the donations was, once the warehouse was about to close for the evening, a family arrived that had driven from the north of Scotland with a station wagon full of women and children’s clothing items. Not only were these things not needed, but they arrived well past the warehouse’s official closing time and demanded that their donations be processed despite the fact that it meant volunteers who had been on their feet for more than 12 hours that day would be delayed in going home. Furthermore, the arrivals undoubtedly spent at least 100 GBP in petrol to make the journey one-way from Scotland – money that could have been better spent if it was a donation directly to the warehouse itself to get items that were actually needed.
Here, there was no clear cut solution to the problem, but again I thought that mobile might help mitigate some of the issues:
- Mobile fundraising campaign: In the UK there’s no shortage of posters on public transportation and in public spaces that encourage you to text a number to donate to a particular cause. These posters also include brief yet gripping information that helps you to explain the problem and how your financial support would contribute to a solution.While there have been posters to help people fleeing the war in Syria, if there are posters for people stranded in the refugee camps, I have yet to see them. A mobile-based public information cum fundraising campaign could be one way to have people contribute to the volunteer efforts in a meaningful way that doesn’t disrupt or otherwise hamper the efforts of people working in the ground.
- Mobisite or app with regular updates on the refugee camps needs in Calais and Dunkirk. Although no one seemed to have a very precise answer to the question of how many people live in the camps, it was clear that every day there was a need to provide items like men’s clothing, toiletries, blankets, and other survival supplies to at least 1,000 people (a conservative estimate).If a list of what was needed was kept up-to-date online, people could then be urged to send only what was needed, with the ability to highlight the items that were in severely low supply. People might still elect to send what amounts to junk, but at least efforts will have been made to prevent that. Mobile would be useful here since there were no desktop or laptop computers at the warehouse that I could see, and an app could help volunteers quickly enter what was needed on the go and immediately share that information with supporters.
Given that the situation in “The Jungle” has already stretched on for years and may continue to do so for years to come, serious consideration of how mobile technology might improve some of the inefficient processes associated with volunteering at the warehouse makes sense from both cost- and time-savings perspectives. That many refugees carried mobile phones with them from their countries of origin makes mobile a tool with the potential to directly involve these people in the efforts to help themselves. More thoughts on this in my next blog post.
Based on my recounted experiences so far, what do you think about these solutions? Is mobile really the answer or are there better options that might be explored? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments!