Oxfordshire Refugee Society: What life is like for Calais refugees

Oxford volunteer group reveal what life is really like for refugees in Calais

Young refugee sitting on a chair near his tent home in Calais. Credit: Friedrich Stark via Alamy

As the icy chill of a northern European autumn slowly fades into a bitterly cold winter, central heating is turned on, warm winter coats come out, and overpriced hot chocolates are purchased to stave off Jack Frost’s cruel grasp. However, for the men, women, and children who escaped war, famine, and persecution to seek refuge in Europe, but now find themselves cast aside and forgotten in Calais, this is not an option.  

The harsh realities of life as a refugee in a ‘post-Jungle’ Calais, remain largely undocumented and unknown. And if not for people like Nicola Missledine, stories of the 1000 refugees who still find themselves in Calais, may never be told.   

A refugee family receive aid from a volunteer.
Credit: Jacob Bailey

“They could be together, create a routine, cook together, even if they were outside in the freezing cold, as they always were, at least they had a community,” says civil servant, Nicola, 29, describing what life was like for a refugee in Calais before the ‘Jungle’ was demolished in 2016. 

“Now, they’re not allowed to form camps or create a community,” she continues, “if they do, the police don’t just move them on, they destroy their belongings.  

“They’re constantly on the run, and there isn’t an official meal plan, so they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They are cold, they are scared, and they are hungry.”  

Nicola, along with pharma company distributor, Jacob Bailey, 23, volunteer with Oxford Refugee Solidarity (ORS), who organise trips to Calais, and working with charity Care4Calais, deliver relief aid to refugees in the area. 

The ORS journey began five years ago, with ‘convoy to Calais,’ which was a protest, pressuring the UK’s government to provide safe passage to those seeking asylum across the channel. And, by providing food, bedding, and tents, show solidarity with refugees around the world. The protest did not make it to Calais however, it was halted at the English Channel.  

A small refugee child dressed for the winter in Calais.
Credit: Jacob Bailey

“My dad and three of his friends had bucket loads of aid, they had a couple of vans worth, but it obviously wasn’t very successful, as they were stopped at the border, and they weren’t able to take it over,” Jacob says.  

“So, as a response, they all decided to pack each of their cars full, and make their own journey, not as part of ‘convoy to Calais.’ That’s how ORS started, they wanted to make these trips more of a regular thing.”  

Jacob first learned of the refugee issue at the age of 17, when ORS was formed, admitting he was, at the time, naïve on the topic. Immediately it became an important issue to him, however after seeing life in Calais first-hand his desire to help increased dramatically.  

Care4Calais volunteers sort through aid donations.
Credit: Jacob Bailey

“It wasn’t until four years ago that I went on my first trip, and that completely changed everything, it did become a much more important topic,” Jacob says. 

“It’s something I’ve always spoken about since and shared and tried to make people aware of, because until you know someone who knows anything about it, you don’t really hear about it. It’s not in our media, it’s not covered at all really.”  

“You don’t hear about it until it becomes a domestic issue,” Nicola adds, “or if it’s something that really strikes a chord in people, like when sadly that two-year-old boy washed up on a beach in Kent, and it devasted lots of people to see that, and then it becomes quite topical.”  

Refugees chat and gather at a sink in Calais.
Credit: Jacob Bailey

Read More: The refugee crisis explained

Nicola believes that the average Brit is unaware just how harsh conditions are for refugees in Calais, due to the fickleness of the mainstream press. The only way to ensure people can really gain a true understanding of life as a refugee is to encourage people to volunteer and personally face-off with the issue.  

“In the press, sometimes it’s topical, sometimes it’s not, and lots of people aren’t that informed about it,” Nicola explains. “The really key thing is not to tell people what to think, it’s to take them out, see it themselves and bring the story back and share it. 

“We’re not offering a solution, we’re not politicians, but personally, I think if most people saw the reality of what was going on out there, they would want to work out a solution, whatever that may be.”   

Volunteers sort aid donation in Care4Calais warehouse.
Credit: Jacob Bailey

ORS is a mix of every type of person, brought together in life solely through their shared desire of assisting those in desperate need. A passion to help people, strong enough to not think twice about giving up their limited free time in this whirlwind of a modern world.    

“We’ve had people ranging from 18 to their 70s, and people from all sorts of professions from students, doctors, nurses, and lawyers. It’s open to everyone,” Jacob explains.  

“I think that’s the reason we’re such a good organisation, because we’re known through word of mouth, it’s open to everyone as long as they have the same common goal, to help.”  



To those interested in helping either at home or in Calais, you can find more information on the ORS Facebook page.   

With the year rapidly unravelling before us, and the Christmas period looming, not everyone will be able to rest easy. In the season of giving, why not spare a thought, some time, or even some extra cash to the 1000 people merely 30 miles from the famous white cliffs, desperate for food, warmth, and safety.