Caring for Calais

Photo Credit: Rose Oloumi

Photo Credit: Rose Oloumi

Earlier this month I accompanied a group of student paramedics who were spending their weekend providing first aid at the refugee and migrant camp on the outskirts of Calais, France. Situated adjacent to a motorway and in the vicinity of a chemical factory, the camp is colloquially referred to as the ‘Jungle’ by outsiders, as well as those who have been forced to call it home. While semi-permanent structures made of converted shipping containers were introduced by the French Government at the beginning of the year, the vast majority of people live in makeshift shelters and tents in squalid, overcrowded conditions. Current figures estimate the number of refugees and migrants living in the area as anything between 6000 and 8000, with many more arriving each day.

Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) have provided essential medical help to refugees and migrants living in and around Calais and Dunkirk since 2003. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) have provided aid more recently and run a health clinic that is open Monday to Friday within the main Calais camp. However, there is no official system in place over the weekend. As a result, health professionals offer their time and services, providing first aid from three caravans located within the ‘Jungle’. Patients are predominantly treated for minor ailments such as colds, lice and the various coughs referred to as ‘Jungle lung’, as well as bruises, cuts and broken bones sustained from attempts at crossing the border into the UK. In the case of more serious incidents, patients are transported to an emergency department in the city.

Shadowing the paramedics for two days as they wandered through the camp providing care, one was made acutely aware of how desperate circumstances for those living there are. The recent demolition of the southern part of the camp highlighted the general sentiment that the refugees and migrants are not welcome there. However, by evicting them from their homes the police are simply moving the problem, not addressing it. For the refugees and migrants, this means the Sisyphian task of constantly having to rebuild their homes.

What is most disheartening on a personal level is that the current situation in places such as Calais in France or Idomeni in Greece appears somewhat hopeless. While countless people offer their time, money and professional expertise to provide care and support for the thousands of refugees and migrants who have come to Europe seeking work or asylum, it does not get to the root of the problem. It reminded me of a line in Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s book Anthills on the Savannah: ‘While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.’ This dispiriting quote is notably poignant in light of what the Western media has dubbed the ‘migrant crisis’. The lack of willingness for many European countries (including Britain) to grant asylum to people, many of whom have fled their country as a result of their lives or human rights being seriously at risk, means the end result will be the continued living, for many, in conditions that no person should have to experience. Refugees have been present in Calais since 1999 and they continue to be in Calais in 2016. How long will this continue and when will this change?

Taken from International Paramedic Practice, published 30 March 2016.

Calais ‘Jungle’ refugees who sewed mouths shut end hunger strike


Photo credit: Rose Oloumi

Nine Iranian’s who sewed their lips shut as a protest at the inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in the Calais ‘Jungle’ have ended their hunger strike.

The men began their strike on 2 March, shortly after French authorities demolished the southern section of the Calais ‘Jungle’, which is thought to have affected up to 3,500 people.

In a statement released on 25 March, the hunger strikers said:

“We have decided to end our hunger strike not as a direct response to the negotiations with the French State but out of respect for those supporting us, who have a genuine concern for our welfare, and as a gesture of faith that the State abide by their limited assurances to protect and improve the conditions of those in the North of The Jungle.”

After 16 days on hunger strike, a delegate of the prefecture of Pas de Calais came to hear the demands of the group. However, after five meetings, no definitive plan for a change in the treatment of refugees was agreed.

The hunger strikers also met with representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Défenseur des Droits, who assured the men that reports on the conditions of the ‘Jungle’ will be issued.

The French government has abandoned the proposed destruction of the northern section of the camp for the time being, which the hunger strikers consider a “victory”. Instead, it has agreed to improve the living conditions there, including enhancing security, medical and legal services, access to clean water and introducing a paved road to allow emergency services to enter the camp.