Mappers from London

By Harry Wood

I joined the mapfugees team last weekend, along with my friend Robert Scott. As big London OpenStreetMappers we’re very close to Dunkirk. This is very convenient, and at the same time it’s embarrassing. After years of participating remotely in Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team responses to disasters in far flung places like Haiti and the Philippines, I feel embarrassed that something we might describe as a humanitarian crisis, has been playing out just 114 miles from where I live.

So for the two of us, it was a drive and a ferry direct to Dunkirk. The same ferry which the refugees are desperate to get aboard. Arriving at the same ferry port which is heavily fortified with barbed-wire to prevent them doing so. The politics and wider issues of migrants and border controls are complex and pretty unsolveable it seems to me, but arriving at the Grande-Synthe camp, and meeting refugees face to face certainly gave me a new perspective on things.


The first guy I met, used to work in a library in Iraq. After accompanying us on a GPS tracing session to pinpoint the camp library, he invited us for tea in his shelter a few square metres shared with two other guys. It seems to be a popular ritual to share tea and have a long chat, perhaps because they know tea is a big thing in England. We joked that he was only interested in getting to the UK because we’re into tea. He laughed but then said “My friend, we’re not interested in tea, we just want a better life”. He said he’d travelled for a month, including a boat crossing. He had been sharing a shelter with three others, but one of them recently emailed him to say he’d made it to the UK. He described the violent people-smugglers who come into the camp at night, and he appeared upset as he told us they had searched his possessions and taken his Iraqi passport by force.


We did some mapping. Not much mapping, since a lot had already been done, but we added more details: positions of embankments, address numbering corrections, building tag refinements. There were also quite a few new things being constructed in the camp. Whenever possible we involved refugees in the process of mapping the camp. On the second day I wanted to try to load some of their android phones with offline mapping apps (OSMAnd or  MAPS.ME) but we hit quite a few technical issues. The kind of thing I’ve read about other field teams having. Shaky internet connections. Dying batteries. I guess it’s good to experience that first-hand. It gave me a few ideas for better prep next time I’m faced with this kind of thing.

While failing to load android apps, I got talking to another guy. He invited me to drink tea with him and his wife and two cheerful little kids. He had a son aged 6 and a daughter aged 7. They were very friendly and image3welcoming, but spoke little english. I had a very slow conversation with him, using google translate on his phone, and all relayed to his wife. Again they had spent about a month travelling to get to Dunkirk. He had worked as a sports teacher in Iraq. He mimed to explain how they had left because of the constant bombing and gun fire every night. I can imagine there wasn’t much call for sports teachers or any kind of life for his two young kids in that environment. I asked him how much stuff they had travelled with. His wife started crying when he relayed that question. I guess they were once a reasonably well off middle-class family, but they left it all behind and ended up here with nothing but a shed and some blankets. I worried that they might think I was able to help them get into the UK somehow, so I explained that I was just here to try to make life in the camp a little better, by creating a map.

I had that intense conversation just before we had to head off. I feel rather haunted by it. It definitely gave me some things to reflect on, as Robert and I casually waived our UK passports and drove onto the ferry home.

I’m sorry we had to leave so soon, as there is more work to be done helping people use the maps. I hope Katja can continue the fantastic work she’s been doing with a rolling cast of different OpenStreetMappers supporting the mapfugees project at this camp and back at Calais.

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