Travel for a cause: Volunteering with refugees in Calais, France

Travel for a cause: Volunteering with refugees in Calais, France

Adoration 4 Adventure’s recommendations for volunteering with refugees in Europe.

There are many reasons why people give to those that are less fortunate. Some have been in similar situations and want to help others the way that they were helped. For others, it’s the knowledge that it could just as easily be them in that position one day. After all, there are many events that are out of our control, and even the most financially secure person might need help during an economic crisis or war.

I chose to volunteer with refugees because I wanted to do something positive after seeing all the negative headlines and hateful comments towards asylum seekers. I truly believe that we are all global citizens, and are only separated by the barriers and borders that we create. As I am currently based in western Europe, I decided to volunteer in Calais, France.

The experiences I had while preparing and serving food to refugees was profound. If you are thinking about volunteering or looking for other ways to help, this article will provide information about the current situation in Calais and the organisations I was involved with.


Calais and Dunkirk

Up until 2016 there were over 8,000 people living in a Calais camp, referred to as the “Jungle”. The majority of camp residents had traveled to the north of France from Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Eritrea, and Pakistan. Their intention to cross into the United Kingdom and claim asylum on the basis of fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, or political views in their home country.

In October the French government destroyed the Jungle, deporting residents or moving them to camps in other parts of France. Many refugees remained in Calais, either sleeping on the city streets or in the surrounding woods. A new camp formed in Grande-Synthe, Dunkirk, 44 kilometers (27 miles) from Calais and by March 2016 the numbers had grown to around 2,000.

Living conditions in the camp were bleak. Only a few hundred shelters were available – tiny wooden boxes that housed up to 15 people in each. Other residents were forced to sleep in one of the two community kitchens. As there was not enough space, they would sleep in shifts and had nowhere to keep their belongings.

The majority of the refugees in Calais are men who are making the long journey on behalf of their family. After receiving asylum status in the UK, they would hope to bring their family over. There are many dangers involved, and some have been hit by cars or trains, and even drowned trying to cross over into the UK. Despite this, there are still families with young children who were living at the camp, waiting and hoping for a better life.

Urgent update: The Grande-Synthe Refugee Camp was destroyed by fire in April 2016 and residents have been moved into temporary shelters. Volunteer teams are working tirelessly to provide food and clothing after many lost the little belongings the owned. The situation is ever changing – however, volunteers, food, and monetary donations are still desperately needed. See the links at the bottom of the post for how you can help.

For more information about the fire at the Grande-Synthe Refugee Camp and the events immediately following, there are two articles from fellow volunteers: The Fires In Dunkirk Were An Entirely Preventable Catastrophe and Up In Flames.

Volunteers give out food in Calais. Source - The Guadian. Photograph - Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Photo credit: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images (The Guardian).

Refugee volunteer organisations

I volunteered with Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) at a warehouse in Calais, which they share with Help Refugees.

Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK)

RCK cooks and provides hot meals to the refugees living in Calais and Dunkirk. Until the camps were destroyed, they also provided food products through “free shops” so that residents could prepare their own meals in the community kitchens.


Help Refugees

Help Refugees is a non-profit organisation with over 80 projects in France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Lebanon, and Syria. In Calais, their warehouse received donated clothing which was then sorted by volunteers and distributed to the refugees in Calais and Dunkirk.



What is the cost of volunteering?

When considering to volunteer for any type of organisation, it is important to also think about the potential costs involved. It is great to be altruistic, however, not everyone has the same financial situation. Generally, opportunities can range from those that charge you to volunteer to those that pay. I would be very skeptical of any position that charges volunteers unless it was a reasonable sum to cover accommodation and living expenses.

Following is the information specific to my experience in Calais. Your volunteer organisation should outline whether food, accommodation and transport are provided.


The Help Refugees and RCK warehouse in Calais serve a large, nutritious lunch for all its volunteers on a daily basis. There are tea and coffee, as well as donated snacks and pastries. All other meals need to be sourced by the volunteers.


Calais is easily connected from Paris and London by frequent buses and ride-shares (such as Bla Bla Car). Ride shares can be found in the Facebook group, Uniting Volunteers, travel buddies (car & room share) – Refugee Crisis. If you are arriving in Calais at night, please be careful and don’t walk around alone.

Depending on where you stay in Calais, you might need transport to the warehouse but there will be other volunteers going back and forth you can carpool with.


For volunteers that commit for more than one month with Help Refugees or Refugee Community Kitchen, free accommodation may be provided in a shared trailer at the local camping grounds. For short term volunteers, the options range in cost:

  • Calais Youth Hostel (over 20 per night for a bed in a twin or triple room, includes breakfast)
  • Airbnb or share houses (starting at 10 per night for a bed in a shared room)
  • Les Palominos campsite (starting at 5 per night for a bed in a shared trailer).

Shared houses can be found in the Facebook group, Uniting Volunteers, travel buddies (car & room share) – Refugee Crisis.


How you can help

No matter what your situation, there are ways that you can help. Last year I wasn’t able to volunteer so I donated money to various charities. Donating on behalf of friends and family is a great gift idea as well.

Donate money: Make a donation to Help Refugees or Refugee Community Kitchen.

Donate goods: Donate goods to Help Refugees and food to Refugee Community Kitchen.

Donate time: Register as a volunteer for Help Refugees or Refugee Community Kitchen.

Buy a Help Refugees shirt: Get your own Help Refugees shirt or sweater.


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Adoration 4 Adventure's recommendations for volunteering with refugees in Calais, France with Help Refugees and Refugee Community Kitchen.

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