Calais: aid in the digital age

In the first demolition of the Calais Jungle, around 127 minors simply went missing. But one campaign has a plan to stop that happening again. In the eight months since its inception, the Phone Credit for Refugees and Displaced People Facebook campaign has raised £130,000 and made 6500 top-ups for asylum seekers who receive no other help. £20 a month allows these people, whose lives have been swept from under them, the chance to talk to their families, reconnect to normal life, contact the authorities, seek help and regain control by telling their stories. £20 buys one month’s internet usage, 300 minutes and 3000 texts.

This refugee crisis is unlike any other because it is the first of its kind in the digital age. The smartphone is allowing both sides to tell their story. Refugees have a voice because the internet allows them to document and share their stories and experiences. Tear gas use and abuses of human rights can be documented and shared through videos and photos in an accessible way. What is happening can no longer go on unseen.

image of the flyer promoting the phone credit campaign with the details of how to donate to the campaign on it

More than 6000 top-ups lasting a month each have been provided to refugees | Photograph Facebook

 

The campaign has saved many lives, helping people travel safely and be rescued from dangerous situations. One case is that of the seven-year-old Ahmed, who sent a text message signalling for help on a phone that was topped-up by the campaign not long before. Ahmed, a minor, stowed away in a truck with 14 others including his older brother. When they started to suffocate, he texted a charity worker in the Jungle: “I ned halp darivar no stap car no oksijan in the car no sagnal iam in the cantenar. Iam no jokan valla.” Translated, it means, “I need help, driver isn’t stopping, no oxygen in the car. No signal, I am in the container. I am not joking.” Valla means “I swear by God”.

The campaign was set up on February 1 2016 by James Pearce after he felt there was something vital and humanising about donating credit online. What started as a campaign within friends and family swelled to over 22,000 refugees and donors as well as a team of 22 people who process requests and top-up the phones, all of whom are unpaid volunteers. The campaign verifies each request and prioritises women and children first. Ensuring that each person only gets one top-up per month allows this small campaign, that relies on the donations of generous people, to help as many people as they can.

“More than 6000 top-ups lasting a month each have been provided, children have been kept safe, lives have been saved and made more liveable” James writes on the Facebook group page. “Thousands of conversations have taken place; people have been able to find out news from home, to tell their families they are alive, to hear each other’s voices often for the first time in months, in some cases years. People have been given the chance to document their experiences and share them with the outside world. Access to education tools, translation software, GPS, media and legal information have all been provided. Thousands of people have been given the gift of something truly empowering amidst a situation beyond their control.”

photograph of one of the homes in the calais refuee camp with fairy lights in the window

The Calais refugee camp could close as early as next week | Photograph: MalachyBrowne

 

The demolition of the Calais Jungle may begin as early as Monday, and this grassroots campaign is worried about the safety of the people in the camp. Efforts are being focused on Calais amid the fear that the campaign will not be able to keep up with the demand, in order to make sure that the 10,000 people can contact the authorities and their loved ones and will not be lost. Aid agencies don’t recognise the importance of topped-up phones, but James’ team understands that phones are an essential tool to keep people safe. There is a growing need for donations, particularly with the looming evictions and the admin team are struggling with the uncertainty of not knowing when they will have the funds to help.

If you would like to help you can search the group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1709109339334305/

and you can donate using the methods below:


 


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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