Nothing can prepare you for visiting Calais, and the reality is you don’t even get the full story when you get there. The deepest scars of the people you meet are completely hidden from all of us.
After a busy morning in the warehouse sorting and preparing packages for the afternoon distributions, we travelled to locations across France. My distribution was on the outskirts of Calais. We headed there with hats, gloves and food bags made up of nuts and dried fruit. On arrival, it was heart breaking to see groups of men dispersed around the road, with battered tents and makeshift bonfires. I had spent time in the Calais Jungle where there had at least been some sort of community but now these individuals had nowhere to really settle. There were young people sat everywhere, all of them longing for a better life; some huddled around small fires to try and keep warm. At the edge of the area a police van played its siren in a threatening manner every so often. Completely unnecessary, but I guess they needed to show who was in charge.
After the distribution had finished we spent the rest of the time with the refugees. All they wanted was to have some people to talk to, people who don’t treat them like animals but like actual humans.
I had spent time in the Calais Jungle where there had at least been some sort of community but now these individuals had nowhere to really settle. There were young people sat everywhere, all of them longing for a better life
I sat on the floor with a group of guys. They were all completely lovely and despite having nothing, they treated me like a queen, giving me a coat to sit on and offering me food. I spent a long time on Saturday afternoon speaking to one young man in this group. Finding out about his passions, what he wanted out of life. He was the same age as me and we joked about how much older he looked. Whilst it was funny, the reason he looked so much older was because he had just travelled from Ethiopia to Calais. The things that he had seen have left him scarred for life. His journey has been hard work and he has struggled leaving his family behind.
He explained how so many people have resorted to drugs and alcohol as a way to help manage the bad memories. Even though there is occasionally accommodation available, they do not have the chance to be with people from their own countries. There are huge language barriers which limits the support available. Halfway through the afternoon, it began snowing. I was absolutely freezing but he didn’t bat an eyelid. It was incredible seeing how strong these people were.
The reason he looked so much older was because he had just travelled from Ethiopia to Calais. The things that he had seen have left him scarred for life.
On the Sunday, I met a 21 year old who has journeyed from Afghanistan. We spent time talking in the kitchen of the Warehouse. He arrived four months ago (a short time in comparison to others who have been stuck in Calais for the last few years). He travelled across Iran, Turkey and Italy to France, with the hope of a new life in England, a fresh start in safety. He is now trapped. He told me about these nightmares, the flashbacks about his past. The horrors that he has seen. These young people are trapped with no way out, mentally and physically exhausted. All they want to do is work and live but they aren’t able to.
Mental ill-health is just one of many problems these individuals face, but it’s one that is barely spoken about or even acknowledged. The truth is, there is limited support for mental health for all these individuals, and so the vast amount of them are likely to be left with long term problems.
What can we do about it?
In an ideal world all these individuals would get the right mental health support in Calais, whilst they are stuck in limbo, so that they could have an opportunity to talk and prevent mental health issues developing or worsening. Currently this hasn’t been an option for them. When I was out there they often talked about how all they wanted was three things: to work, to be with their families, and to be treated like humans.
Mental health support is a basic human right and regardless of our backgrounds, our situations and our lives we should have access to that support in a timely way. As someone who has spent time in Calais who has also had mental health problems, a lot of it is more about having that opportunity to be heard. To share the things you have been through, to talk about those distressing nightmares and the things you have seen.
Mental health support is a basic human right and regardless of our backgrounds, our situations and our lives we should have access to that support in a timely way.
In the UK at the moment there is little to no focus on the refugee crisis, mainly because it is assumed that when the jungle was shut, the crisis ended. Just like that.
The first thing that we need is simple and achievable. For all refugees, whether they are in France, Brussels, England or another country, they need to be treated with dignity and respect. They need to be treated like humans and have their voices heard.
Secondly, we need funding invested into this area to make sure that individuals are getting the right support. If we don’t act now there is the chance that we will lose an entire generation to mental illness.
Even when the crisis is over, just think of all the people who have been affected long term – the people who wake up in the night scared of the things they have seen. The physical scars they have may fade quickly but the emotional scars will take much longer to vanish.