Utopia 56: Helping refugees to live more comfortably

In July 2016, Cordelia Fellowes travelled to northern France to volunteer at the Dunkirk refugee camp – home to hundreds of men, women and children. Utopia 56 were running the camp at the time. Here, she interviews one of the founding members…

At the beginning of last year, after reading a particularly harrowing article on Aljazeera.com, my partner and I decided we wanted to volunteer at the Dunkirk refugee camp in northern France. Back then it was home to over 3000 residents, including the highest concentration of children in any of the camps (estimated at 300) and the conditions were appalling. Muddy, frequently flooded and cramped, the pictures showed a dismal situation, un-helped by the fact that ongoing politics meant that badly needed tents and supplies were often not reaching the inside of the camp.

However, by the time we were actually able to go in July (we had to wait for our daughter to be old enough to be left for a week with her grandparents) the camp was being run by Utopia 56 and the situation there had improved significantly. In the end, Utopia 56 ran the camp for just seven months, from March until September of 2016. Their vision, along with their reasons for leaving the camp, are explained here, by Gaedig Bonabesse, one of the founding members of Utopia 56 whom I had the pleasure of interviewing recently.

These are her words…

“I created Utopia 56 along with a couple of friends in November 2015 and we launched it on January 15th, 2016. We created this association because we felt unable to stand by and do nothing. We first went to Calais in September 2015 and all of us had the feeling that we were entering a third world country in a state of war.

We couldn’t understand why there were so many English volunteers and so few French! It was clear that local associations were in a state of emergency the whole time and as a result, there was no coordination between the various groups and individuals who were trying to help. We felt that our own professional backgrounds (Emilie is a journalist; Hervé is a webmaster and graphics artist; Yann runs festival campsites; Liza and myself do theatre production and administration) gave us some relevant experience. Ultimately we knew that many more people must have felt the way we did and we wanted to show solidarity. We also felt that the State could not possibly do everything considering the extent of the crisis.

The main aim of Utopia 56 is to mobilize and organise teams of volunteers so that they can efficiently help the migrants. We work with all the associations who want our help, and also with authorities who are interested. For example, we worked with the City of Grande-Synthe (near Dunkirk) and the City of Paris.

Primarily we collect garbage; clean toilets and showers; distribute food and clothes… We encourage people to come and see the work we do, to see what is happening outside of the media discourse. Ultimately we feel that it is important to show the migrants that we are concerned about what is happening to them.

Given that we are barely even a year old, we are still very much in the process of structuring our association. We have had to learn the hard way that we never know what is going to happen next! So we need to adapt very quickly to new situations. We now have ten full time volunteers and over 3000 registered volunteers. We are also looking to fully employ five of our longest standing volunteers. Slowly we are building up our credibility – successfully, I think!

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Our involvement with the Dunkirk Camp

We were working in the Calais camp when we became aware of the situation in Dunkirk. We went and saw the old camp and then met with the Mayor of Grande-Synthe who, at the time, was looking for an association to coordinate volunteers at the new camp. We proposed a plan for the organisation of volunteers and they decided that we had the best plan, though I also think we were chosen because we had no past. By that I mean we had no conflicts with any other associations already on the ground and we had no political tag.

We felt strongly that we should support the Mayor’s initiative, the first political initiative of this kind. Because of course the solution is political. We also had the support of Doctor’s Without Borders and we knew that their presence in the new camp meant that human rights would be respected. All of this was finalised just one week before the camp opened!

I myself only visited the camp once in a while, to meet people and to see how things were developing. Primarily I was administrating from Brittany. It was a full time volunteer job.

Why Utopia 56 left the Dunkirk Camp

Ultimately it was down to the fact that we wanted to keep accepting all refugees and the City did not want us to accept lone men or lone women. We felt this was unjustifiable and that we could not, as volunteers, apply this policy.

Psychologically it was very difficult to leave the camp as many of the volunteers had been there for such a long time, that they had become attached to it and its inhabitants.

We gave three months notice in order to give everyone time to get organised. We didn’t want to let any of the migrants down and ruin the efforts of the people who worked there.

Utopia 56 does not judge anyone, but we felt all along that the French State behaved as if this problem of the refugees would just disappear, like magic. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is too staunch in its positions and does not involve nearly enough citizen’s organisations. But I don’t want to go too much in to this… We are not a political organisation, though we of course have our convictions. France’s policy is now that there shouldn’t be any more camps and so they are slowly shutting down Dunkirk. I have no further opinion on this.

Supporting Utopia 56

We depend entirely on donations and we welcome any amount, however small. Please visit our website: www.utopia56.com where clear instructions, in both French and English, will tell you how to donate and become a member of our group.”

For an update on Utopia 56 and their work click here – and on the refugee crisis: here and here

Main photo credit: Anyway I have hope, David – Utopia 56