Chantel Wheatley has volunteered in refugee camps in Calais on four separate trips. (Photo: Chantel Wheatley)

Chantel Wheatley, 32, from Kent, has spent the past two years volunteering for Brentwood-based charity Calais Light, an organisation that runs convoys of volunteers to refugee camps in Calais.

She talks to Ellie Hutchings about how she got involved with the effort to help refugees, what it’s like to volunteer in Calais, and why she continues to go back.

What is Calais Light?

Calais Light takes ordinary people who want to help refugees in Calais and organises their trip for them, so we’re essentially delivering volunteers to Care4Calais and Refugee Community Kitchen, which are the two main charities there.

I got involved with Calais Light because I’d volunteered in Calais in 2018 with two friends, for a charity called Help Refugees. When we got back my friends felt like they’d done their bit, but I wanted to keep helping. I got in touch with Calais Light and went on one of their trips, and then about six months later I started doing some regular volunteering with them. I’ve been to Calais four times now.

What prompted you to go to Calais for the first time?

I lived in Thailand for five years travelling and working, and I was able to do that because I’m privileged in having a British passport. In Thailand there’s a lot of migrants from Burma, so I’ve seen how people are treated who are just looking for a better life. Now I live in Kent, so Calais is on my doorstep.

The people in the refugee camps in Calais are fleeing wars, they’ve already had to go through so much, and it’s not even the end point. I think those of us who are able to travel more freely should try and help them.

What was the reaction of your friends and family to you decision to volunteer in Calais?

The first time I went my family thought it was a bad idea. I think they thought it was dangerous because of the way the media portrays Calais, but I’ve been four times now so everyone has got used to the idea. Once I explained to them what it’s actually like, they were supportive of what I was doing.

But the most recent time I was in Calais was November 2021, and the day before I went a boat capsized in the Channel and 27 people died. People were a bit more apprehensive about me going that time. I think because it was in the media so much.

What is an average day like for a volunteer in Calais?

It can vary, but the typical day starts at nine in the morning with a big team briefing. Then we start sorting through things that people have donated for a distribution in the afternoon.

A distribution is where we go and give out one key item to the refugees. For example, last time I went we were giving out walking boots. The weather was horrendous, it was freezing and raining and there were people queueing for boots in flip flops. You’re usually there for about three hours, because the queues can be up to 300 people.

What are the psychological effects of volunteering in the refugee camps?

When you come back, you feel good that you’ve managed to make a few people’s days better, just by going and giving out some boots. But I struggle with the fact that I get to go back to a warm bed and plenty of food, because the refugees in Calais don’t have that.

For me, it helps to have a support network. There’s a group of Calais Light volunteers that constantly keep in contact and we all support each other. And Calais Light checks in with all its volunteers a few days after they get back to make sure everyone’s okay, because sometimes it takes a few days for it all to sink in.

What has been the impact of COVID on Calais Light’s efforts in Calais?

We had to completely change our direction, because the main focus of Calais Light is taking people to Calais. We started an initiative called court commerce, which asks big brands to donate brand new clothing to refugees arriving in the UK.

When refugees arrive here, they’re given old clothes that are maybe not their size or not their style. I know it’s really kind that people donate things, but refugees shouldn’t be expected to be grateful for other people’s cast offs. We had donations from Vans, Boohoo and Berghouse, and our main task was getting those donations to refugees in the UK.

What is it that drives you to keep returning as a volunteer in Calais?

If I can give up my time and help someone who’s in need, then why would I not do that? I want to help and I’m in a position where I can help, so that’s why I keep going back. And I will continue to go back until there’s a safe and legal route for refugees to come to the UK.