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Calais Refugee Camp: A trainee social worker’s summer experience


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Written by Lauren Berry, Social Work Student, University of Suffolk.

The refugee crisis in Europe has been a controversial topic in the media, which sparked my interest in learning more. This summer break, I took the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a refugee in Europe by volunteering in Calais.

This experience has given me an important insight into the problems faced by those left stateless and has prompted further questions on the impact of becoming a refugee and what social work can do in times of crisis.  Those who have been left stateless and are travelling in Europe are left vulnerable to abuse, grooming and repeatedly have their human rights infringed by unsympathetic government policies (Sokoloff and Lewis, 2005).

There is a renewed call for a new social work fit for the 21st century, and it is my view that social workers should become involved in humanitarian crisis such as this, as human rights and social justice is at the heart of social work practice (Professional Capabilities Framework, Section 4, BASW, 2018).

To put into context of the extent of the situation in Europe, global displacement of people as a result of conflict stands at 68.5 million. Of which, 25.4 million have refugee status, 52% of this figure are under 18. 85% of these refugees currently reside in economically developing countries (Global Trends, 2017). These trends vary depending on location, for example in Europe the rate of women and children is significantly lower than the global trend (Strindberg, 2015). There are many reasons for this trend, travelling can be dangerous and women and children are less likely to attempt travel, they are also have a higher death rate than men when travelling (Strindberg, 2015).

Throughout my time in Calais, people disclosed examples of the dangers faced, for example a man was hit by a freight train as he tried to board. He had access to minimal health care and subsequently he has been left in a wheel chair. He was taken by the police and beaten. The only option he had was to claim asylum, however as he is unable to speak French so he relies on the kindness of volunteers to complete his application. When considering this, it is unsurprising that it uncommon for children to get as far as northern Europe. After learning more about the dangers I questioned what would motivate people attempt this journey.

From this experience, I learned that often they have optimistic perceptions of a new life, where they believe they would be welcomed to settle in Europe. However, for many I spoke to, a reunion of family is what they hoped for. I was introduced to someone who disclosed he witnessed the death of his wife and child, and that he was escaping to live with his brother – his only surviving relative. I also sat and had tea with a man who had previously worked as a hairdresser in London for 12 years before the conflict in Syria began. His visa had expired, as a result of this he was deported. The motivation for his travel was to rebuild his life in London, where he had friends and family.

During a food distribution exercise, I had the opportunity to view the living conditions of those we were supporting. It isn’t uncommon to see the police on site, they often use intimidation tactics, regularly make clearances of tents in camp and they destroy any structures built. I saw the consequence of this as residents of the camp ‘shower’ using a hose and with no privacy, they have no toilet facilities and nowhere to shelter from the rain. On the clearance days, the police not only remove tents but they also burn personal effects, subject individuals to violence and intimidate support workers (Bulman, 2018). One recent clearance left 800 people without anywhere to sleep (Help Refugees, 2018). It is difficult to imagine how an institution designed to protect people can treat people with so little dignity and contribute to further trauma by destroying items of sentiment.

My observations in camp encouraged deeper reflections on the psychological effects being a refugee can have on a child. For example, I observed an interaction between a man and a child, as the man tickled her, a woman rushed in and pulled the child away holding onto her tightly. It made me reflect on the unique risks travelling as a child can present. What will the emotional state of children be when they experience physical, emotional, and sexual abuse alongside homelessness? These harms can cause for children, which will inevitably affect their development (The Children’s Society, 2018).

To conclude, this humanitarian crisis provides an opportunity for social workers to take a stand to ensure children have the best potential outcomes and to protect the human rights of those left vulnerable -- this summer experience has taught me that much.




BASW. (2018) Professional Capabilities Framework (Accessed: 8 September 2018)

Bulman, M. (2018).  More than a thousand refugees suffer ‘inhumane’ living conditions in Calais and Dunkirk, warns UN. (Accessed: 7 September 2018)

The Children’s Society. (2018) Distress signals: unaccompanied young people’s struggle for mental health care(accessed: 8 September 2018)

Help Refugees. (2018). Evictions in Dunkirk leave hundreds without shelter. (Accessed: 8 September 2018)

Sokoloff, C and Lewis, R. (2005) Denial of Citizenship: A Challenge to Human Security, 28, pp. 1-12

Strindberg, A. (2015) Five reasons why the majority of refugees reaching Europe are men

United Nations Refugee Agency. (2017) Trends at a glance. (Accessed:7 September 2018)


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