Aid with Dignity

Exploring the Impact of a Grassroots Aid Relief System

Countless grassroots volunteers sought to realise a dignified humanitarian aid service in Calais. This webdoc helps piece together a full picture of its impact, drawing on data collected from July to October 2016. Though never officially recognised, the Calais refugee camp — or so called "Jungle"— became a growing transit point for newcomers hoping to start a new life in the UK. At the peak in September 2016, up to 10'188 people found residence in the camp. In the absence of major relief organisations, local and foreign grassroots organisations played a key role in providing humanitarian aid, especially Help Refugees and their partner l'Auberge des Migrants.

This document serves three purposes:

Mobile Distribution: how did it work in Calais?

By mid-2016, the bulk of non-food aid items — such as hygiene items, bedding, and cutlery — was distributed through a sytem of mobile distribution. It was a process of "door-to-door" deliveries informed by the personal choices of each resident. Residents, who often lived together with family and friends, were provided a picture binder of available items and asked what items they required and in what quantity. Requested but unlisted items were also noted.

This new system replaced a system of "static" distribtion points where individuals had to stand in long lines. This was criticised as humiliating and ineffective by residents and volunteers. From June 2016 until the camp's demolition in October 2016, the mobile distribution team reconfigured their aid delivery system from a manual process of pen and paper to a data collection and management app called KoBo Toolbox. Drawing on data collected through the toolbox, this document provides a snapshot of mobile distribution team’s efforts and their impact.

The Days of the Distribution

From July to October, the mobile distribution team was active for 56 days and inactive for 22 days. While the majority of these inactive days represent regular off days, the mobile distribution operations were also affected by various emergencies that arose in the camp. Red dots indicate days without distribution, while blue dots indicate the total number of items requested - and likely delivered - that day.

Several factors determined the total output of non-food items per day, such as the availability of transportation, the inflow of donations, and the number of volunteers. These often fluctuating factors may explain the varying aid output figures. On average, 544 items were delivered per day. (Hover the bars for more info)

Highlights in Perspective

4782 Residents reached in 78 days

110 Hours of data collection (and at least as much time for distribution)

3017 blocks

bar soap


body towels



914 tubes


1585 bottles


911 bottles

shower gel

Voices of the Residents

To overcome language barriers, volunteers relied on binders containing pictures of available non-food aid items. These were used to help identify the specific needs of the residents and their families. To avoid creating false expectations, the binders were updated daily to reflect what was available that day: nothing was worse than, for example, creating the expectation of a warm night, only to realise the duvets were out of stock.

Once the type and number of available items in need were identified, volunteers asked residents what other items they required but were not on the list. This word cloud reflects the "wishlist" of items. While the world cloud shows the chronic shortage of essential items, such as duvets, it also reveals the request for personal items such as perfume, playing cards, and body cream.

Early Birds?

At which times of the day did the mobile distribution team operate?

The mobile distribution team started their days around 8 or 9 am. After morning meetings, volunteers took stock of available aid items, replenished the warehouse when possible, and updated the binders to reflect available stock. Between 11 am and 1 pm, the team was then divded into two sub-teams, with one group taking orders in the camp and the other simultaneously packing the items as the orders were registered on the app. The time stamp of each recorded delivery of these 78 days is plotted below.

The majority of residents woke up a little before noon. So as to avoid unneccessarily waking up residents, volunteers collected order requests starting before noon and ending shortly after 1 pm. The cut off is easy to explain: lunchtime. While the Refugee Community Kitchen primarily cooked regular lunches for the camp's residents, the kitchen provided a tasty lunch for the volunteers as well. (Hover the circles for more info about each request)

From Toilet Paper to USB Sticks: Top Items Delivered

Depletable items, such as paper cups, bar soap, and toilet paper, were more readily available and regularly delivered to residents in the quantities requested. These items are represented in blue below.

Durable items, like razors, pillows, and ear buds usually came in small packages, containing three to ten units respectively. These items are represented in red below. There was always a steady supply of toothbrushes and sim cards. Duvets and pillows were much needed but frequently out of stock.

Mobile Phone Carrier: Towards the UK

In taking aid delivery orders from residents, volunteers always asked for the resident’s phone number in order to notify the individual as to when the delivery was made. Of a total of 699 numbers recorded, more than 40 per cent of the phone numbers used a french prefix. However, a sizeable percentage of residents — just under 30 per cent — had a UK sim card. Two factors may explain this. First, there was a noticeable demand for sim cards. Residents with family in the UK were able save money in international call charges, as certain UK service providers — such as Three — nulled roaming charges for UK numbers in France. Second, the sizable share of volunteers coming from the UK were able to provide a steady supply of UK sim cards.


There were, however, major constraints and difficulties; this webdoc will discuss one of them. In an initial mid-2016 survey of the camp, the mobile distribution team estimated about 2,400 shelters in the camp. Assuming an average of 25 deliveries in a day, the mobile distribution team would take almost four months (117 days including 1.5 rest days a week) to complete a full cycle and reach all the residents in the camp. However, the team's follow-up interviews with the service users revealed that most depletable items in the aid packages lasted, at most, up to 3 weeks. In order to meet each resident's aid requirement every three weeks, the team would have had to delivered around 100 packages per day – a target, however, far beyond the limitation presented by an unsteady supply and volunteers. Though users were generally satisfied with the mobile distribution system, it was clear the aid distribution could not happen with enough regularity and reliability for it to be actually called an aid distribution system – it was more like a system of gift giving. The root causes of this constraint (the lack of donations and volunteers) could not be easily addressed.

Credits Help Refugees

The mobile distribution system was a band-aid on an open wound. Though the team worked towards a dignified process of aid distribution, the central grievance remained. The grievance is that the camp itself exists: an unofficial 'transit' camp from which departure is often fatal. To stay there, on the other hand, means to face a life of increasing destitution, desperation, and rightlessness. There was precious little any aid organisation could do to address the larger political crisis at the root of the camp's troubles and, indeed, of the existence of the camp itself. The camp itself was demolished in October 2016 and the aid efforts described above ended with it. Yet, asylum seekers are again living in Calais where they endure police harassment and seek isolated areas for shelter. Grassroots organisations now struggle more than ever to reach them.