by Amy Norris
In September I joined a group of social workers who had been volunteering in the Calais refugee camp. The group, Social Workers Without Borders, was set up by Lynn King, a social worker who wanted to use her skills to help those in the camp.
It was hard to plan for each week as the people and issues within the camp were changing constantly. In addition, it was difficult to find our role as British social workers in another country, in a camp with little structure.
It is hard to explain just how surreal the camp was. We drove over to Calais and parked right by the camp. We walked straight in with no security checks or any questions about our intentions. The camp itself reminded me of a shanty town. The clash of worlds so close together was almost too much to comprehend.
We set ourselves up in the Kids Cafe where children and young people were using the room to watch TV and charge their phones on makeshift extension cords. Again, nobody queried who we were and it highlighted just how vulnerable the children were.
The children themselves were mainly boys. The youngest I met was 8 and I managed to establish that he was with his parents. However, an incredibly funny and cheeky 10-year-old, was on his own. I had no idea what to do with this information. All I could offer was some respite in the shape of arts and crafts, games and conversation.
Attempts to have some form of recording system for the children didn’t take hold, meaning that from one week to the next it was impossible to keep track of which children were still in the camp and which were missing. Many of the difficulties we faced came from other charities and volunteers in the camp.
Some disapproved of us, social workers, being present and actively sought to sabotage our work. For instance, volunteers were actively told not to liaise with us and some charities suggested that our assessments would traumatise the children, without taking any time to discuss the very delicate and cathartic nature of the work we were trying to do with us directly. However, other charities such as Care for Calais and the school were more supportive.
Sadly, despite months of attempts to promote child in need assessments within the camp, it wasn’t until the UK agreed to take some of the unaccompanied minors whilst the camp was closing that our assessments really came to fruition.
These assessments went alongside the young people’s asylum claims and helped to identify any specific needs they might have. Some volunteers even met family members already in the UK to help speed up their claims by proving connections.
‘We are full’
Sadly, many local authorities waited until they were forced to place these young people in care before considering their needs.
I remember asking my then Director of Children’s Services a year ago, if she could allow our local authority to take more unaccompanied minors. The message I received was clear – we are full.
I imagine that many social workers will have no idea what these children experienced in their home countries and on their journey, but sadly I think more could have been done to understand their daily life in the Jungle and move them to safety sooner.
I am incredibly impressed by the number of social workers from all over the UK who travelled to Calais. This community activism felt much more in line with my social work values than some of my day to day work does.
In a world that appears more unstable and fractious than ever, I urge individual social workers to become more active within their communities. We have transferable skills but we need to think creatively and use them to support the most vulnerable, particularly the unaccompanied children all over the world – and those on our doorstep.
Amy Norris is a children’s social worker.