Refugee volunteers detour to Belgium to avoid French blockade


A group of volunteers is back in Shetland after taking a detour through Belgium to ensure their efforts to deliver aid to refugees in Calais camps were not thwarted.

Shetland Solidarity with Refugees set off last Thursday evening with a packed van, including a two-bedroom frame tent, to join a convoy heading for the French port with aid for people in need.

They were due to join a larger convoy taking aid to Calais but while travelling south they were made aware telling them the French police were preparing to blockade the convoy because of security fears. There are heightened tensions in France because of terrorism and violence fears as the country hosts the European football championships.

Kaila McCulloch was with the group and said the aid mission became “covert” when they received while in Aberdeen a call telling them, “there would be trouble in Dover as the French police weren’t allowing the convoy to go ahead”.

Already on the road the group vowed to continue and began to think of alternative routes.

First thoughts were to go through the Channel tunnel but they then thought the authorities probably already had their names so they might get turned back attempting this route.After looking at all the options they agreed that entering Europe from Hull was the safest option. This meant another 14-hour boat trip across to Zeebrugge in Belgium. They then drove the 80-miles to France and arrived in Calais.

The group had received texts warning them to take care in the French town and not put themselves or anyone else in danger. But they were determined to complete their mission, as this what those who had donated items expected of them.

When they arrived in Calais they made contact with the Care4Calais charity and the founder Clare Moseley gave directions to get to the refugees. Within 10 minutes of receiving directions they had arrived. Care4calais were extremely happy to see the well travelled Shetlanders and “were very grateful that we had managed to get the much-needed donations to them”.

Shetlanders and “were very grateful that we had managed to get the much-needed donations to them”.

The group spent time helping out in the warehouse before heading back to Calais to catch the ferry back to Dover and the hardy volunteers were back in Shetland on Monday morning. They did not enter the camp where 5,000 refugees are living but they did drive past it. Kaela said: “I can only say the conditions these poor souls are living in are a very long way from being acceptable”. She described the whole experience as very “humbling”.

The French authorities refuse to officially recognise the camp which means that large organisations such as the Red Cross and The United Nations will not enter an area without a mandate from the government. That means “they are unable to assist on the ground” said Ms McCulloch which made it all the more important the aid got through.

All told the group spent 44 hours at sea and drove more than 1,200 miles to get to Calais. They are extremely glad their journey was a success and said it would not have been possible without the generosity of the people of Shetland and help from the trade union Unison Shetland, Star Rent A Car, NorthLink Ferries, Artmachine and Martin Watt of Brevik House Properties Ltd. They arrived safely home on yesterday morning.

Prior to travelling south the group’s van had been filled in three days. This was the second batch of aid and on a much smaller scale than the previous effort. Donations were delivered to Brevik House Properties Ltd.

Spokeswoman Jeanette Nowak said they were amazed by the generosity of the Shetland public. Before they left a raffle was drawn and Deborah Mallet won the prize of a collage by Jeanette.

The author: Michel DEURINCK

Michel Deurinck, born in Brussels in 1950, started his career in the Belgian civil service, dedicating over 30 years to public service. Upon retirement, he pursued his passion for journalism. Transitioning into this new field, he quickly gained recognition for his insightful reporting on politics and culture. Deurinck's balanced and thoughtful approach to journalism has made him a respected figure in Belgian media.

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