Connecting refugees in the ‘Jungle’

Leaving the house without your mobile is an annoying inconvenience, and can be cause for a minor panic: how can I check when the next train is; how will I get to the meeting place without GPS; how can I contact my friends if I’m late?

But for refugees, mobile phones are vital on the treacherous journey to safety. Wael, a Syrian refugee, told Agence France Presse, “our phones and power banks are more important for our journey than anything, even more important than food.” Mobile phones are a vital source of information for refugees, helping them to help find the best routes through Europe, access necessary funds through online banking, learn new skills, and stay in contact with friends and family on Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber. But all of this requires data — and for refugees travelling thousands of kilometres through foreign (and often hostile) countries, WiFi becomes a lifeline.

Understanding its importance, The Worldwide Tribe, a non-profit organization, set up WiFi towers for refugees stuck in the infamous ‘Jungle’, the once 6000-strong camp in the French coastal town of Calais. We spoke to Nils O’Hara, Creative Director, about the process and why it is important to connect the people living there.

* The interview took place on 27 February 2016, two days before French police began demolishing the camp.

Refugees using computers in the Jungle library — © R. Farrell

Why did you decide to set up WiFi in the Jungle?

I have been doing work in the Jungle for a long time, and being there, I realised that WiFi is something that people really wanted and needed. I believe everyone deserves to have the opportunities that the internet creates.

What does Internet access mean to migrants and refugees living in the Jungle?

Internet access means that the refugees are able to access information about all kinds of things. It’s important for them to know about their asylum processes and to be able to educate themselves. It’s also important for them to communicate with their friends and families, so it really means a lot. It means they can tell their loved ones they are OK. They can learn about things they couldn’t learn about before, and they can use it for enjoyment and to relax. Boredom is a big problem in the camp. There’s not a lot to do but the WiFi gives them something to help pass the time until their asylum cases are processed, or until they make it to the UK.

What challenges did you encounter when setting it up?

There’s been a lot of challenges along the way. We’ve had to get creative to work out ways of keeping the cost down, and to work out how to mount our poles and access points. It took us a while to find the best way to do things but we’ve got a pretty solid method now. One of the biggest challenges has been making sure that everything we are doing is on the right side of the law. The French have pretty strict laws about open WiFi networks to try and counter terrorism, so we had to tweek our system quite a lot to make sure it was compliant with these laws. Another problem we’ve had is that it’s been too popular! We have been getting through a lot of data and we are still using LTE at the moment, so we are spending a lot of money on SIM cards! But very soon we will have a fixed connection in the L’Auberge Warehouse that we will be able to get to the camp via a point-to-point link. This will mean more people can use our system and it will be a lot cheaper.

The Worldwide Tribe setting up WiFi towers in the Jungle — © The Worldwide Tribe

How do you pay for the service?

We pay for the service with donations from our crowdfunding pages. We have managed to raise quite a lot of money via websites such as JustGiving and a portion of this has gone into putting the WiFi network in place. [Editor’s note: the JustGiving page has now closed. You can donate through The Worldwide Tribe’s website]

Have you set the service up in Dunkirk?

We haven’t set up the service in Dunkirk yet. Calais has been our trial place to see if it all works. We are almost at a stage where we have ironed out all the kinks and we can start bringing it to other places, so Dunkirk is definitely one of the places at the top of the list. The camp there will pose even bigger challenges as it is difficult bringing aid into the camp, let alone a whole WiFi network. It has a lot less wooden structures so it will be more difficult to mount our equipment, and power will be a big issue there.

Follow The Worldwide Tribe on Facebook or visit their website for more information.

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