The UN reports that 24 people are being displaced every minute, leaving more than 65 million displaced across the world. 

The refugee crisis is so big it’s hard for those not facing conflict, persecution and the impact of climate change to comprehend. Finding practical ways to help can feel daunting too. Just how do you provide practical support for people at their most desperate, often when there isn’t a formal aid infrastructure in place?

James Pearce from Norfolk has done just that for the refugees in Calais. His simple Facebook group, Phone Credit For Refugees and Displaced People, has raised an incredible £100,000 in six months and saved lives. He told us how it all came about and why smart phones are so important to refugees…

Virgin Unite, human dignity, refugees, emily turner

Tell us a bit about yourself

I'm a support worker for Social Services caring for and assessing hospital discharge patients. I also play in a band called Feral Mouth and we play alternative bluegrass type music. 

Why did you get involved in Calais?

I first got involved with volunteering in Calais back in November 2015. I had seen lots of stuff in the news about what was going on there and some friends were organising a four-day trip. I volunteered to go with them out of curiosity about the situation and compassion for those affected. I wanted to understand why people were taking such dangerous and desperate measures to escape the camp and reach the UK, and be useful in any way I could in a humanitarian capacity.

I was so shocked and moved by what I witnessed over there that I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. I’ve been making trips as and when I can to volunteer, which is most months, since that first trip.

Where did you get the idea for your Facebook group from?

I made friends in the camp and kept in touch with them on Facebook. Some of them asked me to top their phones up for them and explained how important phone credit is in their situation. I realised there must be many more people in desperate need of phone credit. I also figured there are thousands of people out in the world who would love to find a direct and simple way to support refugees, particularly those unable to physically travel over and volunteer in the camps.

Most refugees in Calais are using UK sim cards and the online top up process was very easy to do remotely from the UK. I set up the Facebook group Phone Credit For Refugees and Displaced People on February 1 and quickly set about trying to fill it with friends and friends of friends who might be interested in helping refugees. I also invited the few refugees I knew to the group and told them to share it with their friends in the camp. We quickly began matching people in need with those willing to offer them help and the group was born!

Virgin Unite, human dignity, refugees, emily turner

Why do refugees need phone credit?

Smart phones are incredibly valuable to refugees for lots of reasons, including:

  • Speaking to family members in their home countries who are often still in danger
  • Following news reports about the situation back home
  • Accessing important legal information about asylum in various countries
  • Accessing updates about what locations are safe to travel to and where support can be found
  • Finding information about services that may be available to them
  • Using online translation and education services
  • Using GPS services
  • Documenting and sharing incidents of police brutality and persecution
  • Having a voice on social media and connection to people who may be able to offer support
  • Locating facilities such as medical services and transport links
  • Supporting mental health by connecting friends and family
  • Keeping unaccompanied minors accounted for by volunteers
  • Allowing women a connection to the outside world when they are often afraid to leave their shelters in camp
  • Arranging their own support such as money transfers from relatives
  • Whiling away boredom in camp with access to entertainment

The list goes on...

How does the Facebook group work?

Refugees join the Facebook group and make a phone credit top up request by posting on the wall. An admin will then respond and verify the person as being genuine by private message. We collect proof of location via GPS and a photo of the person's hand showing the camp behind. We also collect their phone IMEI number to ensure each person is only topping up one sim card with us. We check and record all information on a secure spreadsheet and then match with a donor. Recipients can receive a £20 top up from the group once every 30 days provided they come back and ask each time.

Donors can comment on any pending request post in the group, offering to help and admin will walk them through the process. Alternatively donors can contribute to either the MyDonate fund or via PayPal and the admin team will use these funds to resolve the oldest requests first - always prioritsing the unaccompanied children, then women and lastly men. We seek to help the most vulnerable first and work closely with the refugee youth service and women's centre to ensure this is happening.

Virgin Unite, human dignity, refugees, emily turner

Who is on the admin team?

The admin team are a diverse bunch! They have all been recruited via the group as it's grown and more people have offered to help in various ways. We have admins from the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Saudi Arabia who all work on a voluntary basis. The group operates with zero overheads so every penny donated is spent directly on phone credit. We have also relied on group members to volunteer to help with publicity, website building and other tasks.

Describe a standout moment?

One highlight for the group was undoubtedly the case of seven year old Ahmed who was saved from suffocating in a refrigerated lorry along with 14 others via a text for help which he sent using phone credit provided by our group. This made national and even international news, highlighting the desperate plight of children and adults attempting to reach safety through any means necessary, as well as the importance of phone credit in that situation.

We are often told of people who have finally made contact with family back home for the first time in months and the relief of people finding out that loved ones are alive and safe - and of course sometimes sadly not.

What keeps you awake at night?

Simply, the ever growing need for donations. If we don't have enough money to at least keep the unaccompanied children topped up, then the risks to their safety are hugely increased. During the demolition of the Southern sector of the camp in Calais in March, 129 unaccompanied children were simply 'lost'. I know that had these children been carrying charged and topped up mobile phones then many of them could have been accounted for. The children are my biggest worry, followed by the safety of lone women. The men also factor in my worries, as many of them are suffering severe mental health problems such as PTSD and being cut off and isolated puts them at increased risk of harm. Without phone credit all of these people are entirely reliant on distribution queues for basic things such as food and clothing. With credit on their phones they at least have some chance of organising their own support and the ability to plan things for themselves. 

How can people help?

People can help most of all by joining the Facebook group, search for 'Phone Credit For Refugees and Displaced People' and getting involved. They can also help by donating to one of our funds: