Social work in a refugee camp: ‘All we can do is bear witness to people’s trauma’

Sharon Llewellyn describes the conditions of the refugee camp and the difficulties in helping children without traumatising them further

child in refugee camp dunkirk
Grand-Synthe refugee camp, Dunkirk. Photo: Joel Goodman/LNP/REX Shutterstock

“It’s like watching someone tied to a tree and people are coming along and saying ‘I’ll feed you and keep you warm’ when all they want is to be set free.”

Children’s social worker Sharon Llewellyn has spent the past four months shuttling back and forth from Dunkirk where more than 3,000 people are living in an illegal refugee camp. She, like many others who’ve trodden this path, has experienced the impotence and near impossibility of trying to help in the face of a humanitarian crisis on this scale.

Special skills

Sharon organised a convoy of 11 people, four of them social workers, hoping to bring more to the camp than just tents and shoes. While these supplies are essential, she felt as a social worker she had other special skills she could bring.

“I saw highly valuable volunteers giving out aid and tents and food but that is just responding to a crisis. We wanted to look at people’s needs holistically.”

While she was there, she met children who had experienced huge trauma, some having seen their families drown or be taken by traffickers on the journey over. One little girl had seen her father being beheaded and almost all the children they met woke often in the night if they heard a loud noise, associating it with bombs going off.

“Initially we thought we’d go over and do some work with the children relating to trauma but as soon as we got there, as professionals we realised we couldn’t do that,” Sharon explains.

“Any work these children do must be long term and what we didn’t want to do was start engaging in conversation and opening up issues of trauma we were not then able to close down for them properly.”

Training around trauma

She is concerned that many aid workers who go over with the best of intentions don’t have the training around trauma to know how best to help these children. In some cases they may be making these problems worse: “It’s so chaotic, anybody can walk in there and do whatever they want,” she says.

She believes what’s needed is a permanent base for social workers in the camp to do that longer-term work families living there so desperately need.

“We did do some work with the children, helping them do drawings of what makes them happy and sad, but we kind of had to close that down because children were trying to talk about the trauma.”

Instead they decided to gather as much information as possible and bring it back to present to MPs and organisations back in the UK.

Single assessment

“Our aim was to complete a single assessment on these children. Of course, they’re not in the UK so they have no right to a statutory assessment, but we wrote an assessment of their needs in a Word document, based on the format we would use at work.”

Access to health care, education, housing, the ability to foster a sense of identity and family ties are all things we consider fundamental to a child’s wellbeing at home.

“Within the dimensions of a single assessment, not a single need was being met for those children,” Sharon says.

working together to safeguard children assessment framework

Assessment framework from Working Together to Safeguard Children 2013. Source:

In Dunkirk, there are doctors, nurses and psychologists going into the camp but very often people don’t know when they’re coming.

Health care is dealt with on a crisis basis. Recently, an outbreak of measles prompted volunteers to come over and administer the vaccine, but there is by no means universal access to medical assistance.

No washing facilities

Sharon says there is a massive scabies epidemic as there are no proper washing facilities. There is a huge outbreak of head lice across the camp which the children’s parents find deeply distressing. Some children haven’t been washed in more than 30 days.

“It’s winter, they are living in about seven inches of mud, there’s water everywhere and faeces and urine in the drinking water. There are chemical toilets but I think I would be overestimating if I said there were 20, for more than 3,000 people.

“But the most horrifying thing to witness was the level of depression. I met mothers who could only rock and cry. They’re so desperate that we were begged on a few occasions just to take their children away.”

Sharon describes one mother who became so desperate, she zipped her baby into a sports bag and tied it to a lorry’s axel. She just wanted to get her child out of France and into the UK.

They found men in the camp who had British passports but, because the UK wouldn’t allow their wives and children into the country, had come to live with their families in Dunkirk to keep them safe in the camps.

Lack of structure

“As social workers, we are used to working within a structure, and to go in and find every single dimension of need we would identify for our children in the UK is not being met is absolutely horrifying.”

What struck Sharon most of all, however, was the children’s inability to play.

“I saw one child being given a picture book by an aid worker. He proceeded to tear the pages out and throw them on the fire. He knew that if there’s anything you can burn to keep warm then that’s what you should do.

“They’re being taught basic survival skills, not developing and learning.”

She is frank about how helpless she felt in this situation: “I don’t think we made any difference,” she tells me. All they can do is bear witness to people’s trauma, and keep sounding the alarm back home, hoping someone at the top will listen.

2 Responses to Social work in a refugee camp: ‘All we can do is bear witness to people’s trauma’

  1. FosterCarer1964 February 8, 2016 at 12:12 pm #

    One of the things we’ve dealt with in our ten years of Fostering children is their inability to play. Something we found to be un-child-like. Surely all children can play?
    Teaching children to have fun, play and stop playing has been a job we’ve associated with sexual abuse and neglect. Children are very good at learning to be who they need to be to survive.
    Re-wiring early-learning and learned-behaviours can be very difficult and time consuming for us. It can take years.
    Apparently the synapses that are created between neurons in the brain that create memory pathways in our development determine our response reaction to hunger, fear and pain etc. These learned first-response pathways don’t just go away. We can teach the brain to re-wire stronger pathways alongside the old one by teaching new ways to respond to hunger or play etc. I’ve learned that the old pathways never go but new ones can be made stronger over the years.
    Children who have learned to take food and eat large quantities of food when they find it (or hide food for later) need a long time to re-wire their first response when food is regular and always available. Some of the children in the camps or in the war-torn countries will need more than the odd visit. It’s gonna take years.

  2. Gordon Thomas February 8, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    “She just wanted to get her child out of France and into the UK.” So how about claiming asylum in the safe, stable and prosperous country of France???