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Responsible voluntourism exists - and I found it in the Calais jungle

October 1, 2016
Harold Goodwin
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It was as I was beginning to edit my first ever responsible tourism video (concerning how tourism can help the refugee crisis) that it hit me: I live within 30 miles of a refugee camp, and yet I’ve never visited one.

I was reading about awesome initiatives and inspiring stories that told how refugees were being integrated into our communities as museum tourist guides, and how tourists and refugees were encountering each other in Lesvos and sharing life dreams.

And then I stumbled upon Manda Brookman’s A Million Acts of Sanctuary project.

It was here that I discovered that the Cornish community is coming together in an act of compassionate collaboration. And then it suddenly dawned on me: I need to help more too. But how can I possibly be credible in delivering the message if I have no personal experience of what is really going on?

My first thought was to tell my friend and Production Manager, Maddie Duggan, that I had to go to Calais. She agreed, and told me that she was coming too. We packed our bags and emailed the Help Refugees charity in Calais to tell them we would join them for a weekend.

The night before our trip, some of my extended family told me I was making a mistake, that the people in the camp were economic migrants seeking better livelihoods, and were not actual refugees. And that I should be very wary and not stray away on my own.

I was also told that I needed to establish if any refugee women live in the camp, because, you know, there’s an assumption made that women prefer to send their men out to seek asylum and then receive money from them. The implication was that they wouldn’t actually make the journey themselves because they weren’t really in any danger.

The usual propaganda.

I wanted to draw my own conclusions. I informed friends and family that I would go with an open mind, and would share my thoughts with them upon my return.

When we arrived at our destination, our briefing pack discouraged us from entering the camp and taking photos of refugees. We were asked not to prompt any discussions as they could do more harm than good, and potentially distress people. The camp managers highlighted that refugees are not tourist attractions and shouldn’t be treated as such; and that we, as volunteers, had an important duty to perform: to help provide refugees with the best possible experience in the circumstances.

I was told that jobs inside the camp were only given to long-term volunteers who understood the etiquette of the camp and knew how to interact with refugees, and came with the appropriate qualifications.

In my close circle of responsible tourism practitioners, we recognise that deprived people should not be treated as tourist attractions, and that formal qualifications are imperative when it come to volunteering to work with vulnerable people.

That’s exactly what Justin Francis from Responsible Travel, together with Harold Goodwin and many other responsible tourism industry leaders have been campaigning about over the last few years.

And we’re now seeing even more widespread traction on these topics, with the likes of J.K. Rowling campaigning against reckless voluntourism, and promoting a more well-informed approach, especially when it comes to volunteering with vulnerable people.

During my Calais trip I discovered that responsible voluntourism was being practiced correctly – right in front of my eyes. I was delighted; these people were doing it the right way.

We spent our two-day adventure putting together winter-clothes arrival packs for women (yes, surprise, surprise - there are women in the camp) and working on a production line assembling food packs. We neatly put together the essentials: beans, milk, rice, flour, sugar and onions into boxes that were due for delivery by truck the next day. We were asked to prepare extra packs, because the following day a lorry drivers’ protest was scheduled and the whole compound needed to be sealed.

While we worked, we did some research. We found out that, as well as women, the camp contains over 860 children, 78 percent of whom are on their own, some as young as eight.

We discovered other statistics: 45 percent of camp refugees come from Sudan, where the war ended nine months ago. A further 30 percent hail from Afghanistan, which is still at war, and seven percent have arrived from Pakistan, whose north-west region has been at war since 2004. There are also minorities from Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Iraq – countries that are all engaged in active conflicts.

This data alone proves that these unfortunate people are not economic migrants; they are fleeing from war.

My experience has proved to me that we need to start getting our facts straight, and work at understanding these conflicts better. As Robin Lustig said very recently, it is time for some moral outrage. We need to understand the problems better, and we need to do a great deal more to help – each and every one of us.

How is it possible that the UK government continues to supply weapons and licence the sale of arms in some of these countries? Whether we like it or not, we are complicit in perpetuating such conflicts, and we have to do something to help reverse the situation.

Despite the dark clouds gathered across our world, I always see a silver lining, and continue to remain hopeful. There were so many positive outcomes following our experience.

We hung out with compassionate people, did useful jobs, learned things and ate great food (thanks, Calais Kitchens).

  • Since our return, seven work colleagues have decided to join Maddie and me for our next volunteering trip.
  • Our foray was taken notice of by Travel Weekly, who decided to write about it.
  • Harold Goodwin has asked me to talk about how tourism can help the refugee crisis at November’s World Travel Market.

And finally, I love witnessing my friends’ campaigns that promote the right course of action. We can all make a difference, and every individual effort adds up to make a huge contribution to dealing with the crisis.

For me, it started by making a video, which in turn inspired my trip to Calais. Now, I have a huge to-do list. What about you?

My name is Crista Buznea, and I’m here to learn.

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