In October, members of Techfugees France went to Calais to meet the Refugee Info Bus team. Álvaro, Mark, Martha and Rosie to install and test from their van the computer equipment of our partner Cisco France and improve internet access for refugees.
WHAT IS REFUGEE INFO BUS ?
Calais between 2016 and 2021, from same to worse
The Refugee Info Bus was founded in March 2016 by a group of friends who had been volunteering in the Calais “Jungle” for several months. It is an British association that supports displaced people at the French-British border in Calais, by providing multilingual and accessible information on existing services in the city (food distribution, water, clothes, accommodation, health care, legal support…), and by giving access to phone charging and repair, WiFi, sim cards, batteries and charger cables.
Since 2016, the situation in Calais has changed. The “Jungle”, dismantled at the end of 2016 by the French state, no longer exists and has been replaced by scattered makeshift camps. Today, nearly 2,000 people on the move (not all of whom have refugee status) live in and around Calais, according to local associations.
What has fundamentally changed, apart from the destruction of the achievements of the collective living in the former jungle (schools, places of worship, sports centre, restaurants…), is the instability of the situation. Every 48 hours, evictions are carried out by the forces of order (CRS), making the installation of fixed outdoor WiFi points unthinkable. Tents are destroyed, other items are confiscated. It is an eternal game of cat and mouse, designed to exhaust people on the move and organisations, with no real political will for sustainable reception or dignified conditions. “It is scary that we got used to it”, says one of the members of Refugee Info Bus, referring to the daily presence of the police and the regular police violence. Food distributions are the first to be targeted, since the prefecture’s order prohibiting “all free distribution of food and drink in certain areas of Calais“.
Nothing that is not installed in the medium to long term can resist the passage of the forces of order. A striking example, water tanks installed by Calais Food Collective were first slashed, with witnesses, then their access was blocked by rocks, cleared by the people on the spot, then this time, other rocks, even bigger and heavier were installed. These endless stories are told by local associations and journalists.
An inter-associative team in Calais, the Human Rights Observers (HRO), documents human rights violations and police violence in order to fight against them through legal training, the presence of volunteers during expulsions and identity checks, and the animation of Whatsapp groups.
Unfortunately, France is not the only country to blame. “How can we fight against human rights violations when the push-backs – illegal according to international law – practiced by Britain at sea are openly debated in Parliament?
And what about digital technologies in this context ?
In this deleterious context, every week, from Sunday to Thursday, the Refugee Info Bus (RIB) team goes to three sites in Calais, in a van, to set up tables, benches, power strips, generators and wifi box to allow an average of 200 people to connect to the internet for two and a half hours to check on their families, watch the news, find out where they are going to spend the night, or simply listen to music or play a game to get away from their oppressive daily lives.
The New Arrival Guide is a document available in English in French and translated into Arabic, Pashto, Amharic, Urdu, Farsi, Vietnamese, Oromo and Tigrinya, updated monthly by the RIB team and translated by a network of remote translators to provide accurate information about existing services for displaced people in Calais and Grande-Synthe. The Info Bus team also updates an interactive map, which reflects the information from the NAG in an interactive map accessible for everyone to list distribution and aid points.
Access to sockets for charging mobile phones and a wifi connection are essential for displaced people in Calais, as elsewhere. It is too often forgotten, and cannot be repeated often enough, that the mobile phone is the primary source of autonomous information: to translate, to call, to search, to find your way around, to call for help. EVERYTHING requires a charged phone, with data.
The RIB team, on its information board, explains, alongside the distribution of Lyca or Three SIM cards with between 140 Mb and 1G of free data what this means, and where these operators allow you to call. “It has happened”, the team tells us, “that a person has put all their savings into data coupons from operators that do not allow them to make calls in Sudan or Eritrea. These people are devastated and come to us for advice. Being able to inform people that 140Mb is only 6 minutes of HD video but it’s 45 minutes of call on Whatsapp, so it’s important.
WORKING WITH TECHFUGEES FRANCE
The history between Techfugees and Refugee Info bus dates back to 2016, where we started helping remotely, from London and was portrayed by Makesense’ documentary Waynak. “Techfugees coordinates the tech community’s response to the needs of refugee people, so our aim is to promote projects using digital to make a social impact with displaced communities. These projects are now listed on our Basefugees platform, and we are helping them to grow,” says Louise Brosset, Techfugees’ Global Community Officer.
The partnership with Techfugees France allows Refugee Info Bus to focus on their essential daily actions: assembling, disassembling equipment, answering urgent questions, installing a SIM card, unlocking a phone… Remotely, we help them to get donations, recruit volunteers with technical profiles, and have good quality computer equipment.
Internet via Cisco Meraki
The partnership between Cisco and Techfugees France started 3 years ago. And in the continuity of the sponsoring of the fellowship and hackathon, the Cisco foundation decided to support the connectivity project by providing Cisco Meraki hardware. Given the field configuration, we decided on the latest version of the MG41E gateway which can support 2 SIM cards. Coupled with MR74 access points, this provides Wi-Fi coverage in the vicinity of the van, with internet access via the gateway using the mobile network.
Having a Cloud administration of Meraki devices allows a better remote management of the configuration but also a clearer visibility on what is happening at the network level. Thus, via the Meraki dashboard, the RIB team has a better understanding of usage and needs, as we have seen in a session where over 2 hours, the internet consumption was 11GB of download data for about 40 people connected to the WiFi network.
On the field with RIB team
Early October, two representatives of Techfugees France, Louise and Jérémie, arrived in a very particular context, a few days after the big dismantling of the Grande Synthe camp which gathered 800 people, followed by the death of a 16 year old Sudanese boy trying to cross the border to England, and a second mass dismantling affecting 400 people in Calais, the same morning of the tragic event.
We arrived in the big warehouse shared by different associations (Refugee Info Bus, L’Auberge des Migrants, HRO, Refugee Community Kitchen, Utopia 56, Calais Food Collective and the Woodyard). Despite the rain and wind, an atmosphere of mutual aid and solidarity reigns. Everyone is in the same boat, we work together and we help each other out. Newcomers, Calaisians, French and internationals, are welcomed with open arms to lend a hand.
After meeting the other associations present that weekend, testing the equipment, activating the dashboard allowing the team to follow the number of connected users and the data consumed in real time, we accompanied them for two charging sessions. About 300 people in the morning, a hundred in the afternoon. The van pulls up to the “Welcome! Everyone participates in the installation of the site, and as soon as the generators start humming and the crates containing at least 16 plugs are all connected to each other, and the women are installed in the back of the van in the “Women Space”, it’s off to 2h30 of uninterrupted charging! There was not a minute’s hesitation, the questions and thanks flowed. An old lady from Dunkerque sneaks into the crowd to greet us and offers us a bag of clothes, thanks us for the work done, and leaves without asking for more.
HOW CAN YOU GET INVOLVED?
From November 2021, we will help Refugee Info Bus to launch its remote volunteering programme. The aim is to create a network of local ambassadors in France who will collect and test mobile phones and send them to Calais.