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Meet the social workers supporting refugees in Calais

  • 31 Aug 2016

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

24th August 2016

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.