From Calais to Paris, from migrant camps to the city’s streets, Marjorie Gerbier-Aublanc followed ordinary citizens engaged in “humanitarian improvisation”. Lodging, food distribution, waste collection… Their actions for solidarity slipped into the interstices of State and traditional NGO actions. In her fascinating research, Marjorie Gerbier-Aublanc explores all of the aspects of this kind of unprecedented, innovative and citizen-led humanitarian action.

Your research focuses on “humanitarian improvisation” in the migrant camps of Calais and Paris. Can you explain what this means?


Marjorie Gerbier-Aublanc – The migrant crisis and the emergence of migrant camps, namely in Calais and in the streets of Paris, brought about a surge in citizen engagement which was not connected to associative or activist networks. Ordinary citizens who were moved, if not outraged, by images of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean or the sight of encampments under their windows, became engaged in spontaneous, improvised actions for solidarity which took an unprecedented, sometimes surprising turn… They felt that public and humanitarian action were not sufficient to ensure the survival of the migrants. This improvised humanitarian action was therefore built up on the job, in reaction, and slipped into the interstices left by State inaction, the specialisation of NGOs,  and their reluctance to take charge of missions which normally fell to public authorities.


How did this citizen engagement give rise to a new form of humanitarian action?


MGA – In the field, these citizens, citizen collectives and associations adopted a liminal position. Which is to say, they set out to fill in the gaps left by other aid actors, taking charge of unmet needs: tent repair, food distribution, waste collection… For example, a major NGO had created roads, a sanitation network and collection points. But the inhabitants of the camp had no bin bags. Volunteers from an association took charge of the distribution of bags and the collection of waste by hand in order to bring the waste to the collection points.

In addition, these citizens proved very resourceful, making use of new information and communication technologies and encouraging a mobilisation without engagement in order to allow anyone who wished to help to get involved. They thereby ensured a permanent turnover in human resources. I called this the “hybridisation of humanitarian aid”: actors, principles and actions which enable the articulation of humanitarian responses to the timetables of ordinary citizens’ lives, logistic and moral rules of intervention in the field associated with a flexible, “à la carte” organisation.

But this improvised humanitarian action really distinguished itself by the quality of the inter-individual relationships it fostered. By establishing a less systematic, more personalised kind of aid, which was open to different perspectives, these volunteers created strong links with the migrants. The latter, used to being treated as fluxes and statistics, found a kind of hospitality amongst these ordinary citizens, an attentive ear for their uniqueness, and a recognition of their dignity. These volunteers brought more than aid to migrants: they brought them new social ties, familiar references, and dignity. Moreover, their method of intervention satisfied their need to act. Some were able to participate in actions carried out by the volunteers, passing from the status of a passive aid recipient to that of an actor. Which changes everything. For example, the distribution of meals with aid recipients queueing up in a docile manner often sits uncomfortably with volunteers and migrants, since it calls to mind the power relationships at play in such moments. When the migrants participate in food preparation and distribution, this bad impression is alleviated and the ritual of mealtime becomes a bonding moment.


Yet you speak of “organisational bricolage” to describe the functioning of this citizen engagement…


MGA – Indeed, I refer to organisational bricolage as a tool for improvisation, which characterises a very flexible way of doing things. In terms of coordinating operations, the hierarchy and organisation fluctuate a lot. They evolve according to each person’s availability, and to the skills demonstrated in the field. Especially since the turnover is also very significant. A novice in aid provision, planning a stay of several weeks and who turns out to be autonomous, might therefore very well be promoted to team leader after a few days. Field actions are flexible and cobbled together in emergency situations. Social networks play a central role in the organisation… Each person can sign up on Doodle or Facebook. Recruitment follows the same logic. New volunteers discover their partners and tasks directly in the field, with no prior selection or meeting. In the absence of consistent training or specific requirements, each person brings what they can, and their goodwill. This is also what motivates the volunteers. This way of doing things guarantees them a presence in the field, with the migrants. Which gives them a sense of usefulness which is stronger than in the context of support activities from a distance, offered by local associations.


Which flaws did you identify in this humanitarian improvisation?


MGA – First of all, the desire to help at all costs can put migrants at a disadvantage. In Calais, one of them told me: “Here, everyone is a legal expert”. Indeed, a number of volunteers accompany migrants in their asylum-seeking procedures. Yet they do not always have the skills and sometimes give false or contradictory information.

Secondly, whilst the flexibility of the operations seems to offer “à la carte” mobilisation, lots of volunteers became consumed by their engagement. Without a clear framework or psychological counselling, they did not take enough distance. In Calais, some had the feeling of “going on a mission”. They devoted all their free time to it, weekends, holidays, periods of unemployment. Similarly, in Paris, volunteers began by giving one or two hours a week to the cause of aid for migrants, and ended up investing completely in it, to the point of sacrificing their private lives. Some found it difficult to get out of, experiencing something close to burnout. For many volunteers, this experience constituted a break which reshaped the boundaries of normal life.


photo credit : Philippe Huguen / AFP