I first heard about the chance to work with refugees in Calais through someone on my course who was going over in the summer of 2016 with a group of health care professionals from the UK and Ireland. They asked if anyone else wanted to go too. We’re all aware of the refugee crisis in Europe, so the chance to do something practical for people was too good to pass up.
They were happy to have students go along as the premise was to offer basic first aid, although some were more qualified, so able to provide more advanced care.
Initially I found the scale of the place overwhelming – the size of the camp, the conditions that people were having to live in, the rubbish everywhere – it was heartbreaking.
We had three caravans that we used as our bases, splitting teams according to their skill mix, with people who lived in the camp acting as interpreters. Wound care was common and as a student nurse I was able to help with that.
We also saw a lot of people with injuries caused by trying to get across to the UK. There were possible sprains and fractures, which we referred to the local medical centre, as we had limited resources. Living in a close community without proper sanitation meant there were lots of communicable infections too – including colds, coughs, chickenpox and scabies.
It was also the first time that I’d seen anything like the brutality shown by some of the police there. They were there every day in full riot gear, and the attitude and approach were so aggressive, unpleasant and intimidating. I saw lots of injuries caused by rubber bullets, including children. The police often used tear gas at night too. It felt very unnecessary. I didn’t feel unsafe at all and I didn’t witness any altercations.
As I was working alongside different health care professionals, there were lots of learning opportunities. One GP showed me how to do a basic chest examination and I worked with a nurse from Ireland who has worked there regularly and still continues to provide care now. Her background is in A&E and spending time with her was invaluable. Her approach was to try to provide the same standards as you would at home, so her caravan was pristine and her infection control practices as good as they could be. She treated people with such dignity and respect, giving them time and space. I found it inspirational.
Hopes and dreams
Meeting people at first hand reminds you that they all have lives, hopes and dreams. It’s not just a theoretical crisis, but people who have witnessed things that most of us can’t even imagine. In one instance I tried to advise someone how to take paracetamol and he told me he was a pharmacist. Moments like that make you aware that those living here have come from all walks of life and it is desperation that has brought them here. It could be any of us.
Since I came back, I’ve tried to help people understand more about what’s going on. I’ve found it frustrating that people say how amazing it is that I’ve gone there, but then skirt around the issues and not get involved themselves. What I did wasn’t special. I just did something that needed to be done - and we all have a responsibility to do something to help.
I hope to return this summer. The demolition of the camp has led to new arrivals being far more vulnerable, so there is still much work to be done.
Congress debates child refugees
At RCN Congress in May, members debated a resolution calling for the UK government to enable unaccompanied refugee children to settle here.
Speaking in favour of the proposal - which was eventually passed - Rosie shared her experiences of working in the Calais camp. “It’s abhorrent that our government has not upheld their commitment to these children,” she told the audience in Belfast. “We should open our arms and our borders to these incredibly vulnerable young people.”
As an RCN student information officer (SIO), this was Rosie’s first Congress. “It was also the first time I’d spoken in public,” she says. “To be honest, it was petrifying, but I feel very strongly about this issue. As nurses, we need to engage with what’s happening, as so much of our role is advocacy for those who have less of a voice and need our help. Having the opportunity to use this platform to share the experiences of the people I met was the least I could do. Hearing first-hand accounts reminds everyone of the reality of what’s happening.”
Rose is a post-graduate student nurse at the University of Southampton. She went to Calais with FAST (First Aid Support Team).
Watch the debate