Meet the social workers supporting refugees in Calais

Two social workers share their experiences of responding to the refugee crisis and campaigning for people's right to safe passage

By Lynn King and Kate Grant

The refugee crisis has divided opinion throughout Europe.

The Brexit debate showed that public sympathy for refugees, when aligned with individual experiences of economic strain, creates an uncomfortable conflict in people’s minds.

People don’t want to see refugees subject to the appalling circumstances revealed by the media, but our own fears for our socioeconomic conditions also need to be addressed.

The dominant political narrative in Europe has provided a convenient escape route for these contradictory views and the difficult feelings they induce. But as a consequence, refugees have been blamed. They are labelled ‘economic migrants’ – not desperate human beings in need of sanctuary. Yet again, the victims of society have been blamed for their victimisation.

Where does social work position itself in this narrative? Social workers live and work in communities where people’s fears are real and accord with many of our own concerns.

How does this then impact on our professional views and subsequent practice?

In a bid to respond to these challenges, two initiatives have returned to the heart of ethical social work practice; to be a challenging force against social injustice and to work in solidarity with refugees and those displaced by war and poverty.

Social Work First

By Lynn King

Social Work First was established by two social workers in Kent in March 2016. Our group currently comprises over 400 members and 80 social workers and social work student volunteers. This number grows each day.

We visit the Calais refugee camp, AKA the Jungle, on a weekly basis. The stories we’ve encountered are deeply shocking and upsetting. We recently conducted an assessment of two young unaccompanied children, aged just eight and 11-years-old.

With no parents to provide love and safety, the children relayed how they slept in a cold tent, were frightened of adults and the policy, and that there is not enough food. The French police confiscated free food in July 2016, citing it was not fit for consumption.

Needless to say, the authorities didn’t provide more food.

We also assessed the needs of two families in the camp. Both have young children who are unable to play outside, exhausted parents, and young mothers who are subject to sexual indignation and harassment. Their living conditions are a tiny caravan with no beds or toilets.

‘Challenging misconceptions’

Our work here has quickly developed into three distinctive strands: direct work with people living in the camp, social work education in the UK, and campaigning for the inhumanity suffered by adults and children to be exposed and challenged.

We are working with voluntary organisation Shelter Legal to do assessments of needs and best interests for unaccompanied children and vulnerable families, in order to support their legal claims to be reunited with family living in the UK.

We also liaise with other groups supporting people in the camp and one of our members is working with them to develop a project that sends social workers to the camp, so they can gain an understanding of the conditions people face and their reasons for being there.

This learning can then be used to challenge misconceptions held within current social work practice, particularly in relation to age assessments.

Social Workers Without Borders

By Kate Grant

This is a collective of social workers in the UK, formed in 2016 as a response to the deepening crisis of those without safe passage. We are partnered with the global Social Work Without Borders network, based in America, Norway and Sweden.

We are a grassroots movement of practitioners, students and individuals who have volunteered at refugee camps. We felt the need to come together and organise our profession in the face of the humanitarian crisis of our lifetime.

We believe that our social work skills and knowledge can be utilised to minimise risk and promote the rights and dignity of those affected by borders. We aim to use a strengths-based and structural model of social work to highlight and campaign on the political and social injustice that threatens people’s freedom to stay, and limits their freedom to move.

We see the ‘refugee crisis’ as a result of structural oppressions both here and overseas, and as a crisis of care; not a crisis caused by those who flee.

We also believe that everyone has a right to social care. We want to work with statutory and voluntary sector social care providers to ensure that the specific needs of those without regular immigration status are met by our services. Experience and research has highlighted a knowledge gap in some areas of social care when it comes to working with people who fall outside of mainstream welfare systems, or who do not have recourse to public funds.

Our message as a profession is clear: we should not be focusing on the securitisation of borders, but the safe passage of the most vulnerable in conjunction with the values and ethics attuned to social work. These two initiatives stand in solidarity with those whose lives are torn apart by war, poverty, oppression and hostile political responses.

We hope to use our voice and specialist knowledge to assist those seeking asylum, those without leave to remain, and without access to appropriate services and advice.

We invite you to get involved.

Join Social Work First here.

Join Social Workers Without Borders here.

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8 Responses to Meet the social workers supporting refugees in Calais

  1. Rory August 24, 2016 at 12:08 pm #

    You make some interesting points, but frankly I cannot believe an eight year old can reach Calais “unaccompanied”. Nor am I able to accept that all at Calais are refugees. The majority appear to be straightforward economic migrants, fleeing poverty and low life chances. That is sad but I’m afraid your actions however well intended are encouraging people to Calais. Afghan families are now encouraging their teenage sons to take a chance on Calais and Europe and you are facilitating that.

    • Sophie August 25, 2016 at 9:38 am #

      Rory, I couldn’t be more shocked by response. Where is your humanity?

      We see many children making their way unaccompanied from war torn and dangerous environments. Such young children do reach the UK and become looked after by local authorities.

      The author is citing examples from their direct practice and observations to make their claims. What evidence are you basing your inflammatory assertions on?

      It is a very uncomfortable reality when children find themselves in such dire situations but I can assure you that many children make the perilous journies on their own.

      Where has your compassion gone?

      When we meet with unaccompanied children some of their tales are profoundly upsetting. The journies they take are fraught with danger and they are the often the victims of cruel and criminal behaviour by people traffickers. Would children really take this risk for economic advantages?

      They are not encouraging economic migrants- they are offering a service that saves lives and enables children to have hope. I cannot believe that we live in a world where people would not want to support children who are living in such abject poverty without access to basic ammenities or the simple love and touch that every child desperately requires.

  2. Zahra Kosar August 25, 2016 at 12:20 am #

    Thank you Lynn King and Kate Grant and well done. This is indeed a very useful and educational article.

    Kate I have known you over 6 years and feel lucky enough to work with you. I believe that you are a dedicated sicial worker who is committed to challenge oppression and discrimination at all times. Also promoting human rights and social justice are always at heart of your practice.

    I would like to see more social workers utilising the power of the media platform to address social problems and global social inequalities. Silence is not an option.

    • Nancy Southcott August 31, 2016 at 9:54 pm #

      I believe we know one another from Bristol. I wonder how to get involved in SW w/o borders from Bristol? I am a freelance SW who occasionally has time to spend on this project. Hope you are well, how involved are you?

      Nancy Southcott (used to manage Turning Point service

      • Lauren Wroe September 6, 2016 at 9:54 am #

        Hi all, to get involved with social workers without borders in Bristol (soon to merge with social work first) email us at

  3. Maria August 25, 2016 at 5:59 am #

    I’m so glad you wrote this piece. I feel passionately about this subject yet I don’t always see it reflected in conversations I am having with colleges in the UK. We do need to be doing more to raise awareness of the plight of people fleeing war and persecution whilst addressing people’s worries about the impact of this on their own lives in addition to providing practical support to these people in the camps.

  4. Lynn King August 26, 2016 at 1:33 pm #

    Hi and thank you all for your responses. We have been inundated over the last few months by requests to join both Social Work First and Social Workers without Borders and plans are now in place to merge the 2 groups. This will allow us to continue our focus on providing practical support to those in need and developing our aims at facilitating more informed social work practice in the UK whilst campaigning for a humanitarian response to those displaced by war and poverty.

  5. Andy August 30, 2016 at 1:47 pm #

    I am disgusted and frankly bemused that France, a very, very rich and well-established industrialised democracy with a fully functioning and comprehensive social welfare system (in many ways better than the UK, many would say), is “allowing” children as young as eight and eleven to cross its entire geographical landmass, a distance of several hundred miles, seemingly without any adult supervision and presumably under the very noses of the French authorities. I note a distinct lack of comment or observation on this glaring issue. As far as I understand, the UK manages those unaccompanied asylum seeker children who reach our shores extremely well. I would be deeply offended as a British citizen if people from a professional caring background working in an unquestionably magnanimous and charitable manner felt it necessary to come to the UK from another country to help us to manage large numbers of vulnerable children on our own shores because we had left them to rot in a makeshift refugee camp. What on earth is France doing about this? Or is there unspoken agenda simply to pass the issue on to the UK?