Calais Lessons Learned

The following constitutes the lessons learned following a 3-day mission to Calais to distribute men’s clothing. This document is a work in progress and will be updated with the experiences gained from new missions

This is by no means a definitive guide or exhaustive in terms of lessons learned or best practices and to be clear there is no right or wrong way to go about distribution, but what this is is a reflection of what worked for our mission and some of our observations in witnessing others do the same. 

The mission consisted of 9 persons and we had two vehicles at our disposal, 1 larger truck that was used to transport and store the items for distribution and a second vehicle used to transport items to and from the larger truck for individual/personalized distributions. The truck was also used to facilitate a mass distribution (see below).

Prior to the mission and in preparation volunteers from across Amsterdam assisted in sorting, separating and boxing clothes by size and type before embarking on the journey. Men’s winter clothing was prioritised (the vast majority of the camp’s residents are male), with boxes in assorted sizes of winter coats, jeans, sweaters and appropriate footwear as well as shirts and t-shirts for layering. In addition 5-6 packs of canned food and 2 large consignments of toiletries – toothpaste, shower gel, shampoo etc.

1) Sort separate and pack your items separately prior to departure

This was crucial to our mission and enabled us to the things people wanted, rather than what we though they needed. We observed a number of volunteers distributing bin bags of non-descript items (women’s clothes mixed with baby clothes mixed with men’s clothes of various sizes). This inevitably led to items being discarded on the ground, a painful sight to see, but a reality given that storage space is a premium in the camp and people are not going to take what they don’t need. It would also be advisable to solicit donations based on the needs of camp residents. Food and appropriate footwear are always needed, but not high heels and evening wear (these were some of the items discarded after a distribution we observed). You may want to consider reaching out to the many volunteers that are resident or frequent visitors to the camp. The facebook page for Calais, People to People Solidarity provides handy advice and acts as a message board for those seeking to assist and soliciting and receiving advice.

2) Walk through and get a feel for the camp on arrival

On our first day we parked up near the camp and walked through the camp to get a feel for the vibe and layout. This also allowed us to meet residents of the camp, discuss their needs and what we could provide as well as link up with other volunteers, particularly those resident in the camp, who provided valuable tips and suggestions on what has worked and what to avoid and where needs may lie and good locations to distribute your donations. For example we learnt that a number of new arrivals had arrived the night before and were in need of appropriate clothing.

3) Consider individual/personalized distributions

We employed this as a technique at first given that we had limited numbers of most of our items. It took longer then undertaking a mass distribution out of the back of a van, but allowed us to focus on what people needed and also target those that were unable to jostle in a queue for donations. It also allowed us to engage directly in a personal manner with camp residents. We met with camp residents and asked what they needed, based on what we had. This information was then relayed to other members of the mission who were with the truck and who packed individual bags, which were then dropped off using the second vehicle at a rendezvous point for direct distribution to those we reached out to and at a designated meeting point. Again, this was very time consuming, but allowed us to reach those that may not always benefit from mass distributions, such as the elderly and those new to the camp, who may not be familiar with how the camp works.

4) Avoid targeting specific communities

Some may be more in need then others, but the reality is all are in need in one way or another and there is a degree of equity in the levels of suffering in the camp. On our trip we met volunteers that were seeking only to distribute donations to Syrians for example, when at the time of writing they numbered in the hundreds, whereas the Sudanese and Afghani residents numbered in the thousands. There is a level of equality with respect to deprivation in the camp and targeting one community over another can cause bitter division and anger between groups. If you have solicited donations specifically on the understanding that one group is the intended recipient then consider personalized distributions direct to those groups. 

5) Assess where the needs are prior to departure

People won’t take what they don’t need. While the camp is semi-permanent, the inhabitants are not, some people we met had been there for months, others for days, but most had no intention of staying, attempting to move on. People are constantly arriving and departing. There will always be a need for food, warm clothing and footwear (winter ready, but also running shoes) in particular as well as shelter (tents, tarpaulin and wood). See also (1)

6) Don’t disregard the needs of female inhabitants.

The majority of the camp’s inhabitants are male, with women and children provided with accomodation in the Jules Ferry centre, administered by the French NGO La Vie Active. Space is however limited to aprx 100 and there is a very long waiting list (men are not permitted to stay overnight, but given access to Jules Ferry facilities once a day – 1 meal and 1 shower). There are therefore some women living unsegregated in the camp. Our team saw a number of women in the Eritrean section of the camp for example and several families, particularly amongst new arrivals. So it’s helpful to have some items that women and girls can make use of – clothing, toiletries, sanitary towels etc. you can also distribute en mass to the Ethiopian Orthodox church or the mosque, who can distribute to their respective congregations. We left the packs of food we had with the Church to distribute during its Sunday service.  

7) Be patient

Camp inhabitants are living in squalid conditions and queuing endlessly for donations can be un-dignifying. So if you choose to do a mass distribution in one go you should emphathise with the frustration that some may feel at having to queue or disappointment at receiving what is not needed. Don’t stoke tension by shouting and losing your cool. Many of the inhabitants will have experienced things that we may not understand nor comprehend. Due to paucity of time we undertook a mass distribution out of the back of the truck and near the main road to the camp. We encountered no difficulty in doing so, but used the opportunity to speak to people queuing and indicating what we had, so as to avoid disappointment in advance when they reached the head of the queue. We also witnessed a few distributions that became heated, in part because people were queuing for sometime and were treated in a manner that was aggressive.

8) volunteering – There are a collection of dedicated volunteers living on site in the camp, and even more coming on a temporary basis. Food is a constant need and with winter approaching the need for appropriate shelter is very apparent with many people in tents or make shift shelter. Those with carpentry skills capable of constructing appropriate shelter would be of immense use. As would those with medical training.

Medisins du Monde does have a presence on site near the Syrian Camp at the time of writing and is working with Medisins San Frontier, but is also engaged in a garbage collection campaign. Association Salam has a permanent presence in the camp and assists with accommodation support, meals and legal advice (

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