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.
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
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.
“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.
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
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.
“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
“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.”