My experiences volunteering in Calais December 2018

Ratha Lehall, Social Workers Without Borders Steering Group member and final year MSc Social Work student reflects on her time volunteering in Northern France over December 2018-January 2019.


Calais: Once associated with beach holidays, family camping trips and cheap booze runs, it is now synonymous with images of people surviving within dreadful living conditions, desperate to cross the border to the UK. People who have made long and dangerous journeys from some of the most unsafe countries in the world, in order to seek a better life. We are shown mainstream media images of young men, accompanied by misleading and hatred-filled headlines and articles that fuel the anti-migrant sentiment that continues to rise in the UK.


Many of us know the truth; we know that these are not angry young men who will take over our country with fanatical religious views and will not overburden our public services. We know that they are people with legitimate reasons for wanting to come to the UK, and not stay in France. We also know that, globally, we continue to have a relatively low asylum-seeking population [1]. Our numerous pledges to welcome our fair share of displaced people have not been followed through[2]. We also know that the people in Calais are being scapegoated; a convenient distraction from the government’s role in the rise of poverty, marginalisation and homelessness in the UK. As one of the richest countries in the world[3], it is shameful that there is a need for foodbanks throughout the country, but we know that this is not in any way down to migrant communities, including asylum seekers and refugees.


This was my first time volunteering in France. I spent two weeks over my Christmas break volunteering with Care4Calais, a British charity who are permanently based in Calais. They provide aid to camps of people within Calais and Dunkirk, throughout France and also in Brussels. Volunteers are tasked with fulfilling the most needed jobs; organising donations in the warehouse and carrying out distributions.


I learned a great deal and would advise all who can to make the journey to Calais to volunteer. Seeing the other side of the border creates a new perspective; I would go so far as to call it an eye-opening experience. I worked with displaced communities when I lived in Turkey and have volunteered with aid organisations in Greece, so I assumed that I knew what to expect from Calais. Mostly, I was correct. The structure of work is more or less the same to what I was familiar with, as are the needs of people. What I wasn’t expecting was the genuine “upbeat-ness”, optimism and positive energy of nearly everyone I met. From makeshift camps, to roadside tents, a day centre to a city park, I met so many men who greeted me warmly and talked to me openly. They asked me questions about myself and listened to my answers with interest; encouraged me to persevere with my broken Arabic and Urdu, and spoke with hope about their wishes to make it to the UK.


What I also learned from my trip was that, in France, it is voluntary organisations that continue to shoulder the bulk of the work to meet the basic needs of people. All around the world, people are being displaced in huge numbers by war, poverty, famine and persecution; making treacherous journeys to seek safety. Whether it’s due to a lack of political will, formal structures and processes, or public funds, it is charities and volunteers who provide the majority of aid and care. And, there are no signs that this situation will change soon.


Many of the groups in France, such as Care4Calais, were founded in response to the “refugee crisis”, built on foundations of kindness after learning that there was nothing set up to provide aid to the huge numbers of people arriving in Europe.


While I deeply appreciate this work and huge dedication of these organisations, who are highly organised and knowledgeable about the contexts they work within, I cannot help but wonder how sustainable this situation will continue to be. Organisations are entirely reliant on short-term volunteers; there is a constant cycle of fluctuating numbers of volunteers arriving and leaving, who mostly dedicate their free time outside work and studying. This also means that training is extremely brief and basic, raising the question of whether a consistent response is possible.


While basic needs such as food, toiletries and clothes continue to be distributed, along with services such as charging stations, Wi-Fi, and hair-cutting stations, these depend on the organisations continuing to receive donations. In addition, the more complex needs of people, such as addressing trauma, safeguarding, and legal advocacy mostly go unmet.


For me, this visit highlighted the difficulties that arise in informal and unstructured settings such as Calais. My motivation for becoming a social worker was based on my increasing outrage at the injustices I was seeing and my recognition of my own position of relative privilege. I believed that I had an obligation to use that privilege to challenge structural oppression and advocate for others who need support to amplify their voices. However, in places such as Calais, we find ourselves in an impossible situation where the needs of people are so high and on such a huge scale, that there just isn’t the time and capacity to simultaneously advocate and feed and clothe with the same focused energy and determination.


So, what’s the solution, I hear you ask? Well, great question. I’m glad you asked.


While our government continues to favour hostility and discrimination over fair immigration policies, those of us with relative power need to use it. And, if social work has taught us anything, it’s that we all have power. SWWB will continue to do what we can to raise awareness of the unacceptable situations that people are being forced to live in, and the amazing work of volunteers and incredible organisations who are filling the void by donating, collecting, and distributing vital aid. And we will continue to support those who need social work assessments as part of their applications or campaigns. What we need is more. More people, more money, more will, more kindness. And less. Less hate, less nationalism, less hostility and less greed. I didn’t plan for this blog post to get angry, but it will end on that note. Because I believe that while we continue to be complacent, and wringing our hands at how awful life is becoming for others around us, those who are loud and angry, the people who believe that our country is “full”, are getting louder and more powerful.


Those in Calais, who have risked their lives to get to the border, and continue to risk their lives by living in cold and unsafe conditions, are waiting for the opportunity to again risk their lives to come to the UK. They believe that this is the best country for them. That they will be safe and free here. Let’s do what we can to make sure that is their reality. Let’s speak louder, donate, volunteer, welcome, argue. Let’s make 2019 the year that something different was done for people seeking sanctuary.




A reflection on my time with Help 4 Refugees...

My unique experience with ‘Help 4 refugee children’ has started at 4am in the morning while making my way from West London to South London. I had mixed feelings of tiredness, curiosity, excitement and uneasiness. I felt that why because I was not sure what waits for me today. However, smiling, friendly, sleepy and welcoming faces of other volunteers met me with such a warmth that many of my anxieties disappeared very quickly. Especially when it was accompanied with wonderful view of the sunrise, sleeping London and interesting stories told in the car on our way to Dover.

I think the real challenge and unforgettable experience started once we touched the soil of France. We were passing the old warehouses in a very industrial area when we saw some men running around or hiding behind the bushes as police were approaching from the front. It just felt like a different world. We all knew why those men were running toward the port and why the police were chasing them, but nobody said a word in the car. It just was one of those situations then you feel useless and hopeless and nothing can be said.

The first stop was at the charity warehouse where we left donations brought from London. The charity warehouse was dilapidated, but the energy, warmth and positive atmosphere in the place was magic. Volunteers working at the warehouse were such a nice people. They told us what donations are needed for the coming months and how we can help. While we were dropping the donations, another group of us (in a second car) went to see the refugee family that they were building a friendship with for months. Once both visits were over and the little goody bags for children were packed, with input from a Homeopath organization, we made our way to the ‘camp’.

First of all, that place cannot be called a camp. People live in the woods. There were no toilets, or they were somewhere really far away. There was a water tank with some taps, for a considerable amount of people. Mostly young men were just dispersed around some fields and woods. It was just such a hard view to see. We parked the cars and went for the small field just by the main path. Some kids started running to the volunteers as they already knew who we were and why we are here. Some kids hugged volunteers who they recognised form the last time. The smiles and excitement on children’s faces were priceless. I felt I bit shaken by the environment and the situation, but I told myself that I am here to have a good time with kids and to make their afternoon as fun as possible, therefore, I just took a deep berth and went ahead with a big smile.

It was wonderful few hours. We drew masks, blew the balloons, painted canvasses and t-shirts. Then we moved to face painting and sports games. The kids were so excited; they joined all the activities with such a willingness. They just were kids again, kids without that constant worry of what will be next with their lives. They just were kids who were allowed to be kids at least for few hours. I know, that it is very little we can do for them and that a few hours of playing will not make any real difference in their life. However, being able to bring back a childhood, at least for few hours, for those who got it stolen by war and conflicts in the world, it simply felt good and right. No child should become an adult against his/her own will and too early; and those kids didn’t have any choice or say, it just happened to them.

Another wonderful thing which was happening in parallel with the kids’ games was ‘mothers corner’. We had Henna and nail polish. Some of the volunteers actually spent time with the ladies painting Henna and doing their nails. It was so lovely to see how from very tired and worried faces of mothers, those faces, for few minutes, changed into happy and relaxed faces of women. This small change was a small retreat from the constant profound role of the refugee mother, who not only fights for her life but her children, was so needed for those ladies.

I had an incredible honour to have a chance to speak with one of the mothers. She told me hers and her families story. She was a teacher with people with autistic spectrum disorder back in Iraq. She and her husband had a nice, big house with a garden. Her husband was a journalist. One day he wrote an article that was quite controversial and the governing authorities started to persecute him until he had to flee the country. She and her children were at danger and they followed her husband not long after. Unfortunately, she never met her husband again. She doesn’t know where he is or what has happened to him. So two months ago she ended up in this refugee camp in France. She does not know what to do next. She just knows that she wants her kids to be safe and be able to live a normal life. It was a heart breaking story and I really felt for this woman. We said warm goodbyes to each other and she said with a smile on her face that she hopes she will not meet me again as she hopes she will not be here next time I will come to visit.

We got back in the cars and made our way to Calais to have dinner before the ferry. All 25 mins everyone in the car was silent and deep in their thoughts... It was silence which meant thousands of words and feelings; and it was so warm and comforting. It was an experience which made me, as a person, go back to my own basic core values and rethink the meaning of mine own life. It made me rethink what is important for me in my life and what is just small trifles which will be forgotten in a few days. Also, it made me think how much I have in my life and how lucky I am to have it; and how easy it is to lose it all...

From the observations I made as a social worker there were two main elements where I believe some work can be done, and it could be an amazing piece of work for Social Workers Without Borders. First- there is obvious lack of information among of refugees about the next step. Some of the people who want to get to the UK after a while change their mind, but they do not know what to do next. They do not know how and where to apply for the asylum in France. It would be very important to create an information pack in different languages and share it with all the groups working with refugees so that they can share it with people so that they understand all of their options for claiming asylum. If such an information pack exists, it must be shared widely. The woman who disclosed her life story to me didn’t know what to do next if she wants to stay in France, and I could not tell her much. I did contact a Women Rights organization which work next to the camp and they will try to talk with her and provide her with information. But if we would have that information to hand, we could help too.

The second thing I was thinking of is the unrealistic expectations and information that people have about the UK. We were talking that maybe having some kind of very delicate ‘reality check list’ could help people to think about what might wait for them if they did manage to get to the UK, and that there will be many challenges. For example, Afghans do not know that Afghanistan is currently considered a safe country. This would be a difficult project as we would not want to discourage anyone – but to ensure they are prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.

SWWB is now a registered Charity!

Hoorah! We have just had confirmation that we are now a registered charity - this will allow us to continue to develop and grow our work. Our Charity Registration number is 1174000. If you would like to get involved with SWWB check out the 'join us' page and get in touch. 

Thank you to everyone who has supported us to get this far. SWWB believes in community and activism based social work rooted in values of social justice and internationalism. We are experimenting with a model of social work that can be used to promote the rights and dignity of those excluded, marginalised and discriminate against by borders. 



We are delighted that our colleagues at BASW have endorsed SWWB pledge for NRPF families. The pledge highlights concerns raised by colleagues in the voluntary sector that S17 provision for families with NRPF is falling short of adequate provision that allows children to thrive - with their families. 

You can read the BASW endorsement is here and below - thank you for supporting SWWB and check out the briliant work that Project 17 and Migrant Family Action are doing to challenge inadequate provision for NRPF families. 

In solidarity. 

SWWB Team. 

Alleged misuse of Section 17 funding and use of NRPF worries BASW

Increasing concern about alleged misuse of Section 17 funding and families who have No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) has led BASW to call for greater funding from councils to support penniless refugee and asylum-seeking families.

Social Workers Without Borders (SWWB), together with their partners, raised the issue recently. They highlight how such families are often left with no state benefits and no legal route to work, with discretionary funding made available for children only, leaving parents in a destitute situation.

Under Government legislation, some families will have a residence permit for the UK which does not grant them claims on state help. Such families have no access to such benefits as tax credits or social housing, hence the term No Recourse to Public Funds.

The adults in such families cannot (legally) work. Those who do work are vulnerable to being exploited by criminal bosses and might not be being paid the minimum wage, let alone sick pay or holiday pay.

Section 17, of the Children Act 1989, allows local authorities to provide a form of emergency funding to families who are destitute.

However, there have been worrying reports that in practice officers may be encouraged to provide support only to the child or children of such families, rather than to the whole family, with the result that the child or children become ‘looked after’ (e.g. Section 20).

It is suspected that this practice is a direct result of the underfunding of local authorities.

BASW is calling for local authorities to be adequately funded to ensure that when families are left destitute by the affects of current immigration legislation, social workers and their managers are not put in the unenviable position of having to provide remedial services without the resources to do so.

BASW endorses the SWWB pledge, and you can visit their website to sign their petition here and access more information on families that have labelled as having no recourse to public funds here:

Nick, a SWWB social work volunteer, tells us about his recent visit to Calais with Help 4 Refugee Children

We all met in London, and set off in two cars, getting the train over to Calais with 9 other volunteers. Once in Calais we picked up a van that Care4Calais (NGO) had agreed to loan to us, and I got behind the wheel following the cars to a supermarket where half the volunteers had gone ahead to make up food packages to give out.


The food packages were made up of fresh fruit, biscuits and dates, along with bottled water. Some quite worrying information came out while we were over for the trip, that drinking water for the camps had been tainted with tear gas. We took our food parcels to a camp near Dunkirk, we distributed the parcels as evenly as possible, attempting to single out children and families first. The camp had not received any food yet that day, the people in the camps have no other means to get food as they have no income, and therefore they rely on charities and community organisations to feed them.


We started the day’s arts and crafts activities in the woods, out of direct sunlight and where a number of families had camped. The children ran around gathering up friends from across the camp, the children were so exited and happy to be getting their hands on paint, colouring pens and crayons, filling every single canvas that was taken over with their national flags, British flags, princesses, dogs, cats etc. Anthony (an artist and volunteer) had prepared a giant canvas for all of the children to use, which was entertaining to watch, as it was covered in paint within minutes of them getting their hands on it. It was evident to see how appreciated the arts activities were, as it gave the children a chance to escape their usual day to day situation, of spending long periods of time in the camp with little or no entertainment.


During the arts activities, one of the volunteers from Help4Refugee Children visited families that she knew from previous trips, for an update on how they were doing and to establish need for charity support and intervention. I am unsure if this is undertaken by any other community organisations, both in the UK or France, and due to the nature of the camps now being so spread out and people constantly moving or attempting to get to the UK, it is difficult to keep a track of people.


However the families do tend to stay settled on a camping space, so it would be possible to keep a track of each family and their needs. I believe there is scope for social work intervention with these families, and think that this would support the families with the horrendous situation they find themselves in. If a social worker / volunteer could accompany Help4Refugee Children on each trip, and visit each family in the camps to gather information, it would at least show accurately the severity of the situation these families find themselves in, as the government and media may take information gathered by a social worker, who assesses care and support needs professionally as verbatim. This would also build relationships with SWWB, between families and social workers (so they don’t see us as a tool for government oppression) and if the families end up making it to the UK, we could use our knowledge of a network of charities and community organisations to support these families effectively, having already identified care and support needs -making relevant referrals to mental health services etc. if needed.

SWWB Charity Commission Application Submitted!

Hello to our lovely followers, colleagues, comrades and beneficiaries. Thank you for all of your support over our first year. We are pleased to say that we have just submitted our application to the Charity Commission to register as a CIO and will wait with baited breath for the outcome!


It's been a whirlwind of a year and we couldn't have got to where we are now without your trust, confidence and patience. Follow our Twitter account and keep an eye on our blog and events calendar to see what we're up to and go to our 'Direct Work' page to read some of our success stories from the past year. 

The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.