‘Let’s not use social workers to hand out shoes’: a day in the Jungle refugee camp

Rachel Schraer follows a convoy of social workers travelling to the refugee camp in Calais to bring aid

An “intruder” in the channel tunnel delayed our hired transit van’s progress across the border. We waited outside shivering, still unaccustomed to the new autumn chill, volunteers handing round plastic cups of tea from a makeshift urn.

We were on our way to the so-called Jungle, the unofficial refugee camp in Calais where 6,000 humans, fleeing war or oppression, are currently surviving.
Tell a UK border guard that’s where you are heading and you will be directed to pull over into a different lane, and instructed to hand over your passport for checking.

The journey

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We were eventually waved through after a cursory check. In the next lane over, a vanful of volunteers driven by a woman in a hijab were not so lucky—they were held long before, and for a good while after we were given permission to inch forward.

We were in one of ten vehicles carrying social workers and students, along with aid donations of clothes, food and sleeping bags. They had set out from Liverpool and London early on that wind-bitten October morning, bound by ferry, train and tunnel under the sea for France.

“This refugee crisis has been on a completely unprecedented scale. We haven’t seen this level of human need in a long time and it’s broken through our consciousness in a way it maybe hasn’t ever before,” says Dan Morton, a member of the Social Work Action Network.

Dan and his colleague, James Thomas, were among the social workers driving vans full of donations to the illegal refugee camp.

“If you are a social worker who believes social justice is at the core of what you do, you should be responding to that,” Dan says.

But when your job is working within and pushing against the system in pursuit of social justice, how do you begin to help in a crisis where there is no apparent system?

On the back foot

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On arrival, no one seemed to know where to direct the social workers’ van of aid donations. Time was short in the camp after the three hour delay in the Eurostar terminal in Folkestone. The hold-up on the English side of the border, and navigation difficulties through the town of Calais itself, meant they were already on the back foot.

It was only after several minutes of panicked button-pressing on Google maps that the right place to go was found, and when it was, the warehouse was almost too full to accept what the social workers had brought.

Even a sign at the entrance to the camp, directing volunteers to the warehouse could have helped coordinate aid efforts, James pointed out.

Charity development worker Rob Adlem says the huge lack of a coordinated approach to aid in the camp means work is being duplicated. With no systems, no safeguarding and little visible authority, people are showing up ad-hoc wanting to help, but their skills and manpower aren’t being properly harnessed.

For Rob this is a major problem which he hopes to address through a personal project, the Calais Youth Alliance. He became involved with aid work around the refugee crisis, eventually managing to visit the camp, and says Dan and James’s experience is a familiar one.

Coordinating aid

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“We need to have a coordinated approach in the UK that links with what people based in Calais are doing on the ground.”

While donations are still needed, Rob says at this point the need for volunteers to sort donations, coordinate aid efforts, build services and provide practical and therapeutic support is more pressing.

“Let’s not use social workers to hand out shoes. There may be a family that needs shoes, and we can sort that, but actually social workers have specific skills and those skills are needed.”

Indeed, there was no shortage of good will, and the warehouse near the camp was stacked floor to ceiling with a healthy stream of donations, but it was logistical support that was lacking. There aren’t enough volunteers to sort through all the donations, which chiefly come in on a weekend when people who want to help can spare the time to make the journey. The unmarked service road we pulled down was lined with other vehicles bringing donations: schools, mosques, housing associations groups, all wanting to do their bit.

Caring professionals


For professionals used to having a distinct role in helping vulnerable people, it was obviously difficult to become just two more people queuing up to add their bags to the tottering piles. It was clear both social workers were a little deflated.

“Today has demonstrated how complicated it is and how easy it is to go wrong in aid efforts,” Dan concedes.

“Ultimately we have donated the aid we brought and hopefully it will make a difference and make people’s lives slightly easier. But I’m disappointed we didn’t have a bit more of a human interaction with aid agencies and refugees.

“We want to give the message there are a lot of people out there who think the situation they are in is appalling.”

There was an undercurrent of frustration from the more permanent aid workers there that people were turning up with little planning, bringing bags of unsorted donations and leaving. But equally evident was the helplessness of people who only wanted to do something good and didn’t know how best to go about it.

“The profession should have a big role to play,” says James. “A lot of social work is about coordination. We’re good at working with people on the ground to get positive change.

“It’s a horrible feeling when it dawns on you you’ve gone from being someone doing something helpful or useful to doing something futile or even unhelpful,” he says.

Volunteers with skills

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Rob is hoping to answer that dilemma by targeting social workers, youth and support workers through a Facebook page, to track down people willing to volunteer their particular skills. They need people to build and staff services like day centres.

“We need volunteers with skills in talking to people, listening to people.” He points out the social care workforce is typically more diverse than the average, and there are lots of Arabic speakers and people with other language backgrounds who could help with translation.

Teenage boys are a particular group in the camp in need of a skilful support network around them. Arriving at the camp they are often treated as men, and become very vulnerable to labour exploitation as well as emotional and mental health difficulties.

Through the Facebook page Rob has managed to recruit his first volunteer, a trained trauma counsellor, to work with vulnerable teenage boys in the camp. A Portakabin is currently being built to provide these young men with a place to come and be supported by youth workers.

You can see how a teenage boy would become restless. On top of the trauma the camp’s residents have suffered, oppressive boredom is a huge problem. Walking up the camp’s mud-churned paths, you pass dozens of young men alone or in huddles wandering aimlessly or standing on rubbish strewn hillocks looking out over the sea of tents.

Sanitation and shelter are needed urgently, but activities and occupation might prove just as vital for the longer-term residents’ wellbeing. With authorities turning their backs, there’s plenty to be done.

No systems

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“If people turn up expecting there to be a system, they’re going to be disappointed,” Rob warns, adding there are people on the ground striving to put those systems in place.

“We can develop a knowledge base and some sort of system, but we need to accept that this is all off the back of volunteers.

He added much of the current aid is a short-term response to people’s most basic and immediate needs for food and shelter. In this case, though, Rob says “we have to accept that a lot of people here aren’t going to be leaving any time soon.” Systems need to be put in place in acknowledgment some the camp’s residents might be here long term.

Supporting in the UK

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“In the UK we safeguard against everything, we have legislation for everything, insurance for everything. We need to accept that is not going to happen here. People need to understand that this is an illegal camp- but we do have infrastructure in the UK that can support it.”

The Health and Care Professions Council has said there is no legal reason social workers cannot use their social work skills in this environment.

A spokesperson said: “As a general principal, HCPC registration and standards should not prevent a social worker who wants to use their professional skills to help disadvantaged people in refugee camps from doing so.

“However we would expect social workers to behave responsibly and ethically, within their scope of practice and within the applicable law, in whatever working environment they were in.”

For some social workers, used to working within safeguarding protocols and risk matrices, this is a potentially frightening prospect. But Rob points out social workers encourage the people they work with to practice “appropriate risk-taking”: perhaps they need to follow their own advice.

“If you want to respond to the problem in Calais then you have to decide whether or not to take that risk- you are not insured there. You might be a professional in terms of your registration but you might not be the lead professional in the Jungle.”

But, Rob adds, this freedom from protocol can be liberating.

“I hear a lot of social workers saying they wish they could act more quickly and respond to a need- you can definitely do that there,” he says. “There’s not a much more responsive environment you can work in.”

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8 Responses to ‘Let’s not use social workers to hand out shoes’: a day in the Jungle refugee camp

  1. Lorna Fitzpatrick November 11, 2015 at 3:26 pm #

    “For professionals used to having a distinct role in helping vulnerable people, it was obviously difficult to become just two more people queuing up to add their bags to the tottering piles.”

    It’s not about the ‘professionals’.

    The volunteers are not there in any formal capacity and it seems to me that if people need shoes then anyone who is there to help should be handing out shoes, or maybe helping to sort clothes or other supplies into categories.

    It seems that there are moves to develop a coordinated approach and the provision of a volunteer trauma counsellor is a good move.

    Maybe sanitation engineers, plumbers, builders should be targeted as potentially bringing their practical skills into the camp.

  2. Marie Lebacq November 11, 2015 at 4:50 pm #

    There are initiatives that are have more human interaction with refugees and using the arts to provide support.

    Check out Music Against Borders face book page:
    and the Good Chance Theatre at the Juggle face book page:

  3. kim November 11, 2015 at 6:18 pm #

    On reading your article I think that you are offering a positive solution to difficult circumstances. What struck me most is an approach of helping and doing things for the ‘camp’ residents. You say that boredom is a major problem particularly for the young men who have a lot of time on their hands. This can create a feeling of helplessness and dependency and can become entrenched. It will also create a them and us situation. Often helpers are gaining in self worth and gratification from doing good. Not wanting to sound patronising but the aid industry is vast and lucrative.

    There is probably a wealth of skills, knowledge and experience among these asylum seekers. Why are these not being mobilised. I am a great believer in helping people to help themselves. This would utilise skills, build confidence, offer mentoring and ultimately empower people who are already disempowered and disenfranchised. Many of these individuals have already demonstrated courage, coordination, motivation and determination.
    Many are demonstrating entrepreneurial skills and working together to develop and inhabit the camp. Why not recognise and build on these.

  4. Laura Carr November 11, 2015 at 7:47 pm #

    Thank you for this – so much to think about.

  5. Julie B November 11, 2015 at 10:47 pm #

    Every thing in there observationally about the camp and the volunteers is fairly accurate. The thing missed off is that nearly every single one of the people volunteering are doing it completely free and covering their own accommodation costs or staying in the jungle themselves. The charities there are smallish and highly resource constrained.

    The French government only officially recognises less than half of the actual number of residents and that helps no one. The UNHCR types can’t even intervene yet as relatively speaking the conditions are better there than in say the Greek islands.

    I only met a few paid volunteers when I was there and at least a hundred working for free. We need social workers there big time but we can’t pay for them and they don’t seem to be coming in droves for free. Some do, but not many. Understandably but there is no money.

    Everything we as volunteers do is self funded as a collective grassroots Calais Jungle movement. Calais could desperately could use someone with significant aid work experience in charge of some things as well. It’s unrealistic to expect social workers to take over coordination unless they self fund or convince the government to change. Until that happens, articles like this are throwing stones at the only people who actually are doing something good there even if poorly executed sometimes.

  6. J Smith November 12, 2015 at 6:52 am #

    These people are obviously in need, but they’ve chosen to travel through a number of safe countries to reach the French coast.

    Why couldn’t they have claimed asylum in Germany or France?

    • Phil November 12, 2015 at 12:26 pm #

      It’ heartening to see Social Workers and everyone else getting out to the unofficial refugee camp that is the Jungle (a horrible term) as it is a refugee camp in the heart of Europe. Those doing something be it a little or a lot make a difference and it is appreciated by those that need help and by those people who wish to help but are unable.

      I know as I have spoken to many refugee women, men children and families stuck in Calais. For those that help, try to help and hope to help in any way possible I say; your humanity shines in a dark and desperate situation. It’s a good thing you do when many would prefer those in need would simply disappear and the refugee camp unrecognised and unsupported by the French, British, EU or UN likewise. To anyone else I say do not stand by while Governments (in our name) leave human beings in degrading and inhuman conditions.

      In my humble opinion the Calais approach (make it as difficult and unpleasant as possible so as to discourage other refugees to come) is a warped view of humanity which has been extended. This approach in Calais has been in place for and went unchecked leading to more brutal approaches. By this I mean the policy to withdrawal of funding to rescue those drowning in the Meditation. You may recall the reason given at the time was; to discourage others from making the journey. An inhuman policy dressed up as humanitarian. This approach is now applied in Italy by FRONTEX, EASO, and numerous Border Force officials from around the EU as part of the HOTSPOT approach. Refugees locked up in reception centres and fast tracked to deportation (unless from Syria). These detention centres are closed to civil societies who have been assisting these people for many years.

      To J Smith..
      Re “These people are obviously in need, but they’ve chosen to travel through a number of safe countries to reach the French coast. Why couldn’t they have claimed asylum in Germany or France?”

      With respect! Do some research which I’m sure will help answer your question if you wish to have an answer?

      • j smith November 12, 2015 at 5:28 pm #

        Phil – With respect, I have researched this. Please provide a link to an article which directly answers my question.

        If Germany and France are unsafe countries for refugees, where is the international condemnation of them?