The Calais Project: Using Digital Innovation to Help Refugee Minors in France – Part 1

The field where the refugee camp known as the "Jungle" of Calais once stood. It is now being repurposed to harbor an ecological reserve.
The field where the refugee camp known as the “Jungle” of Calais once stood. It is now being repurposed to harbor an ecological reserve.

Written by Smaranda Tolosano (CAS’17) and Matthias Grenon (CAS ’17)

smarandaMatthiasIn fall 2016, Boston University senior Smaranda Tolosano (CAS ’17) was enrolled in Professor Kaija Schilde’s course Forced Migration and Human Trafficking (IR500) at the Pardee School of Global Studies. Students were challenged to develop an initiative that could address the refugee crisis in the European Union. The project introduced Smaranda to The Jungle, a large refugee camp in Calais, France. Inspired by the work for this class, Smaranda decided that she needed to see Calais for herself. In October 2016, she flew to France where she visited The Jungle and met the NGO’s working on the ground to support the camp’s refugees. From there, The Calais Project was born.


For over a year, near France’s northernmost town, refugees have been living in the streets and woods surrounding desert-like industrial areas and forgotten factories.

The seaside town of Calais, home to 80,0000 residents, has been the center of attention in french and international media when it comes to discussing refugees. While refugees and other migrants are no strangers to the town’s residents, who have been accustomed to their presence ever since the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo, the dynamic between locals, politicians, police and military forces, and the refugees themselves have drastically changed since October 2016. But why would Kosovars and, most recently, African and Middle Eastern people, flee to the north of France, where no economic or integration prospects await?

Geographic proximity to the United Kingdom and the European Union’s immigration policies have been two of the main factors drawing refugees to Calais and its surroundings for nearly twenty years. From there, they usually spend months – sometimes years – trying to reach the UK at any cost, including their life. The UK, they believe, will warmly welcome them as opposed to mainland EU countries, while offering more flexibility for short-term employment and better chances for long-term residency.

From about 2002, when smaller settlements of refugees were destroyed by police forces across northern france, to October 24, 2016, a shanty town on the outskirts of Calais grew into a giant improvised settlement for over 10,000 people. With its muddy streets and businesses made out of tents and plastic tarps, the camp became known as “The Jungle,” from the persian word jangal, which simply means “forest.” This former field full of wild weeds came to host people abandoned by the French and European legal systems, reduced to a status of illegitimacy in the eye of the law. Protection and decent treatment of the Jungle’s residents were not the priority of the armed forces and government representatives, who felt that the settlement was a nuisance and a danger to legal residents living nearby.

Having reconnected with the volunteers Smaranda had met in October 2016, we arrived in Calais with the intention of re-examining the idea of a mass communications platform for the Refugee Youth Service (RYS) that had been proposed a year earlier by Professor Kaija Schilde’s class on Forced Migration and Human Trafficking. Our initial meeting with the head of the RYS and the Activities Coordinator indicated to us that what was needed was a platform that facilitated accounting for the cell phones, SIM cards and phone credit distributed amongst the unaccompanied minors the RYS serves. “Topping up” phone credit and monitoring who was next in line for receiving a phone or a SIM card was a considerable bottleneck that bred confusion and mistrust both within the RYS and the youths receiving the services. If we could create a platform that made the process of receiving a phone or credit more transparent and systematized, then we could reduce the chaos derived from it and enable the RYS to spend more time and resources on its essential functions of providing counseling and advice to children in dire need of both.

Distribution point for refugees in Calais, December 2017.
Distribution point for refugees in Calais, December 2017.

Emboldened by the receptiveness of our collaborators, we set out to develop a plan for the design and implementation of a beta stage platform. And that’s when we were confronted with the very real structural challenges of trying to innovate in the context of a humanitarian organization dealing with a constantly mutating crisis.

Already stretched thin for human and material resources, the nature of the RYS’ services required the organization to be as present as possible on the ground, day-in, day-out. The time not spent on the ground was dedicated to the administrative tasks fieldwork entails. Moreover, the RYS was in the middle of applying for a significant grant to fund a new project that targeted groups of refugees in Dunkirk, just down the coast from Calais. Between the taxing work of being ever-present in the field and the effort to expand the organization’s operations to Dunkirk, we found it next to impossible to set up a meeting with the relevant actors within the RYS and get the kind of administrative access we needed to take a look at the existing data they had on phone and credit distribution. Here we were, accompanying the RYS in their work on a daily basis yet unable to get the traction we needed to get our project off the ground. What we quickly realized was that we were pursuing something of a Sisyphean endeavor: we were trying to collaborate with an organization already overwhelmed by the immense challenges of working in the chaotic, complex and difficult context of Calais and its Dunkirk expansion and we were trying to undertake a project to substantively re-order and optimize their existing operations.

In the end, our best-laid plans were laid to waste by the unanticipated constraints we came to find are inherent to humanitarian operations in a crisis context.

We learned that we were not the first to try to apply an entrepreneurial approach to innovating in a humanitarian space, nor would we likely be the last.

We met other like-minded individuals with practically-minded innovative projects of their own, and we observed that in addition to significant structural barriers to innovation, there was a considerable cultural gap between the entrepreneurial and humanitarian spaces as well.

Sandip, volunteer for The School Bus Project in Calais, December 2017.
Sandip, volunteer for The School Bus Project in Calais, December 2017.

Thankfully, about a month into our time in Calais, we happened upon an innovative project whose founding team we joined to assist in their deployment on the ground: the School Bus Project. Our experience setting the School Bus Project in motion provided us with positive insights into innovating in a humanitarian space that complemented the negative insights we drew from our experience working with the RYS. We will explore our work with the School Bus Project and elaborate on our lessons learned in our next post.      

Matthias Grenon shares how he first learned of the project…

The story of how we found ourselves working in Calais started in fall 2016. Smaranda took a class in the Pardee School on Forced Migration and Human Trafficking (IR500) with Professor Kaija Schilde. The course challenged students to use theoretical and academic considerations to practically address one aspect of the refugee crisis in Europe. Students researched issues linked to refugee flows in Europe and identified a key area they wanted to try to solve, in this case, addressing communication issues to increase the protection of unaccompanied minors in Calais. It turned out many young people under 18 years old lived alone in the Jungle, relying solely on volunteers, who they often contacted using cell phones. Smaranda decided that it wasn’t enough for her to collaborate with activisits on the ground; she wanted to join them in the field. So when it became clear that The Jungle encampment was facing imminent dismantlement, Smaranda traveled to Calais in October 2016 for a few days to meet the NGOs she and the class had been exchanging with remotely. The team’s main partner, the Refugee Youth Service (RYS, originally the Baloo Youth Service), focused on the most vulnerable of asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors. The RYS provided teens, most of them male, with a safe space within the unofficial settlement where they could relax, play sports and games, and study, all under the supervision of trained educators and humanitarian workers, as well as ad hoc volunteers.

The RYS and student team in Boston agreed that what volunteers needed the most was a mass communication system to enable them to communicate with the unaccompanied minors after the camp’s dismantlement, which was planned to occur by mid-October. Over six hundred minors had been given cell phones by the RYS, as well as a functional SIM card with credit to call and text. Smaranda’s time in Calais enabled her to gain valuable insights about the needs and challenges associated with the implementation of such a system as well as the difficulties faced by NGOs and refugees on a daily basis. Her work and contributions over the course of that fall semester earned her a nomination as “MVP student Entrepreneur” in the Boston Globe.

When I heard about Smaranda’s trip to Calais, it struck me as a unique experience that would make for fascinating content for the podcast I had co-founded through the  Howard Thurman Center, a series called The Common Thread. Initially, Smaranda was hesitant to be interviewed.

“I come from a journalistic background and had never been the one being interviewed before. I was no expert on the matter, I simply cared a lot about what was going on in Calais,” said Smaranda.

Smaranda eventually agreed to doing a lengthy interview, and we ended up organizing a listening party featuring the photos Smaranda had taken during the dismantlement. Our incipient partnership continued through a couple of Hackathons and conferences on the refugee crisis and migration and eventually led to conversations with BU Professors Schilde (Pardee), Mashiter (Questrom) and Marton (Questrom) during the summer of 2017. Despite the successes of the fall 2016 experiment, there was still much to be done in Calais and a sense that the classroom experience could be taken even further. Since Professor Schilde was teaching the same class in the fall of 2017, we thought, what if we went back to Calais together? And this time, not for a few days, but for the entire semester? Once we secured the support of the BUzzLab (now Innovate@BU) and the backing of Professor Schilde, we went to work planning and organizing for our time in Calais.

Smaranda Tolosano reflects on the project’s progression…

The work we would like to share with you over the course of the next few posts comprises our initial in-the-moment reflections on what was happening around us and the difficulties we encountered when trying to put together a very pragmatic, digital solution to an issue that does not fit conventional or even innovative business strategies, and which constantly defies the laws of logic because it is inherently human. I write this in retrospect, having had the time to understand what could and could not have worked for the NGO because Matthias and I have now experienced their constraints, working in the parameters that they do, with the financial means and manpower that they have (which never seem sufficient to accomplish everything you want to). We took the time to jot down comments and thoughts whenever we could, but I personally found it harder to do at times in which we could be more useful to the NGO and refugees by actively participating in daily activities and helping to run things smoothly. There is nearly always something pressing to do or resolve when you work in the humanitarian field, which is why a lot of these structures make do with what they can, often with a minimally functional solution guaranteeing a basic level of functioning.

Digital innovation, we soon found out, was not exactly in synchronicity with the pace at which humanitarian situations evolve.


Keep an eye out for the next update from The Calais Project in March 2018.