Idomeni refugee camp
Image: © Arne Bruning

A world of their own: Life inside the Calais and Idomeni refugee camps

Elena Michael talks to volunteers who've been helping migrants in Greece and France and finds out what life's really like inside a refugee camp

The refugee camps in the border towns of Idomeni in Greece and Calais in France have never been official. They’re products of having to wait. And as people wait, restaurants, barber-shops and churches have sprung up. Just like that, these camps became worlds of their own with economies that reflected the lives of the people living there.

Today Idomeni is closed, but Calais remains - and is currently the subject of protests, with French lorry drivers and farmers blocking the main motorway route into the town, saying that the camp should be shut down.

I spoke to volunteers in Idomeni and Calais to find out about life in the camps, and the mini-economies they'd constructed there to make a better life for themselves. Here’s what they told me.

What’s life in the camp like?

Clara Markiewicz, a volunteer in Calais:

“Unlike most camps, the organizations don't 'run' the camp. They fit into the gaps of aid needed most urgently by the people. For example, they help set up kitchens where residents come to eat. It's the camp’s residents who sort themselves out into groups and build many of the communal spaces, such as the church. It's truly a mini-economy fuelled by what the aid organizations provide, the residents’ own cash, and of course the ever-present black market.”

Migrants' tents pitched near the railway line in Idomeni
Image: © Christophe Gateau

Isabel Skrine, Donations Coordinator, Help Refugees and L’Auberge des Migrants:

“People build their own shelters, businesses, and communal spaces, but not many people in Calais have money. People are still reliant on support. In some ways Calais is a complete bubble, but without volunteers and aid organizations they would be in a far worse state than they are at the moment.”

A refugee camp kitchen

Sara Hussain, a volunteer in Idomeni:

“There’s entrepreneurship. Each individual camp has a falafel stand and a barber. At Idomeni, a room located next to an abandoned railway even serves as a supermarket and café. I love all these things because it gives the refugees something to hold on to that is vaguely reminiscent of a job - and therefore of normal life.

A man has his haircut at the Idomeni refugee camp
Image: © Christophe Gateau

How have the businesses that have sprung up affected life in the camp?

Isabel, a volunteer in Calais:

“We didn’t feel the effects until some of the shops and restaurants were closed. Now, the number of hot meals Help Refugees needs to provide has shot up. We’ve gone from spending £7,000 a week on food, to £17,000 a week a couple a weeks ago, to £34,000 a week now.”

Maurice McDermott, a volunteer in Calais:

“There was a thriving black market which affected the distribution that we carried out. I found that many people would queue up several times saying that the extra goods were for sick relatives or friends, but I had my doubts. This required me to have to keep an eye on the queues to restrict goods going to the black market.”

The Calais refugee camp

Emma Mathers, a volunteer in Idomeni:

“Well, the supplemental food projects certainly helped us because food supplies for general distribution were limited. Some Arab men got together the materials and space to cook Syrian falafel on a daily basis which was a wonderful supplement to the regular food distribution. The Kurdish men helped massively in setting up ‘Eko Kitchen’, which has grown and is now being re-established in Vasillika camp.

A man on a bike generates electricity at a refugee camp

Has there been any economic tensions in the camp?

Arman Esfandiari, a volunteer in Calais:

“The main issues were fuel shortage and poor sanitation (low number of portaloos and showers per head). These factors, in my view, were the main causes of tension and the driving force behind the formation of small groups attempting to form cartels/gangs. These gangs tried to establish monopolies on sought after donated goods and services, such as fuel. At times this resulted in violence and intimidation both within and between ethnic groups. This was also eventually directed at the NGOs delivering these goods.”

Alli McGoldrick, a volunteer in Idomeni:

“People starting small shops in the camps was both a good and bad thing. Good to be giving them something to do and a way to earn money, but often the prices were inflated and could cause tension between buyer and seller.

Refugees sit round a campfire in Idomeni
Image: © Christophe Gateau
At Idomeni, a room located next to an abandoned railway even serves as a supermarket and café. I love all these things because it gives the refugees something to hold on to that is vaguely reminiscent of a job – and therefore of normal life.

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