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 . Our numerous pledges to welcome our fair share of displaced people have not been followed through. 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, 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.