Owen McCarthy works with volunteer group CalAid who are a volunteer group working with people living in the refugee camps in Calais, amongst which many are pregnant women. CalAid is a grassroots movement open to all, meeting the needs of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people.
Can you tell us briefly about the work you are doing in Calais?
CalAid’s aim is to meet the basic needs of refugees and displaced peoples through the provision of food, shelter and a reasonable quality of life. We do this through aid, grants and advocacy with particular focus on those who fall outside the established and formal support systems. Since August 2015 CalAid has shipped over 300 tonnes of aid benefiting over 75,000 people across Europe and the Middle-East. We have provided over £7.5m worth of aid, including warm clothing, waterproof shoes and trainers, shelter equipment, sleeping bags, blankets, toiletries, medicine, cooking equipment and food. CalAid has funded infrastructure improvements in the camps, schooling, safe solar lighting and kitchens feeding thousands.
Since July 2016 CalAid has been coordinating and providing education and welfare projects for children in refugee camps in the Epirus region of Greece, particularly in the Faneromeni and Filippiada camps. Since then, 19 skilled volunteers have been recruited, trained and deployed to the region, impacting over 676 people – of whom approximately 337 are children. In Faneromeni, CalAid has initiated education projects that have produced a marked improvement in the conduct of the children in the camp and their preparedness for entering the Greek school system. In Filippiada, CalAid has coordinated the relief efforts of the multiple active aid agencies, creating a camp-wide education strategy for children and adults.
With regard to women’s health and women’s rights, what particular issues are refugee women in the camps facing?
There is no official management of the Calais camp. This leads to all manner of problems and risks. There is no policing and no official avenues for police support when a crime has been committed. There is no clear segregation for many women and girls in the camp. So women and girls from cultures that discourage socialising between genders find themselves permanently confined to their tents or shelters. Only two places provide shelter exclusively for women and girls: the Women’s and Children’s Centre and the Jules Ferry centre, where unaccompanied children and lone women stay. Women and children on their own outside of these centres are at risk. There is an area of the camp given over to many caravans, which have been donated, and in most cases very well renovated, by the UK public. In this area there is a degree of safety and “safe” space for children to play, but the lack of sanitation, the often poor condition of the caravans and hand-to-mouth existence is crushing to the men, women and children.
Are there many pregnant refugees in the camps? What type of care is available to them – pre, peri and postnatal?
There are many pregnant women in the refugee camps in France and Greece – it would be very difficult to put a number on it. In France there is no care for them other than provided ad hoc by volunteer medics who give their time. Ambulances do not enter the camp, so getting anyone who is unwell to a hospital can be extremely difficult and time consuming. In Greece, ambulances do make the journey to the camps when needed, but the Greek health system is under severe strain and the language barrier is extremely high. Women we speak to have spent two painstaking hours travelling for a 10-minute appointment.
Particularly, women with gynaecological problems give up trying to explain to doctors or medics what is wrong as either the translator is an unknown male, and so shameful for both for the conversation to be had, or the process is so painful and long-winded to translate.
Are there specific health issues with regard to pregnant refugees? Are pregnant women engaging in dangerous behaviour in attempts to reach the UK?
Why travel when pregnant? It tells you something about the risks, hazards and fear of what they are leaving.
For many new mothers we have spoken to, they said they felt it was their last chance to get their child to safety. They felt that they would not be able to travel after the child was born, or it would be less likely that they could keep their baby safe.
The women have said they want to provide a future, they want to work for a future, for their children. A safe home is the only home where your child can thrive.
Do you have a story of an individual refugee you can share?
One of the families we work with fled Afghanistan with their three children while the mother was pregnant. They arrived in March and she has since had a little boy. Both parents were medical professionals, working in impoverished communities back home. While the family put on a brave face, they are very exposed. The children have been out of school for well over a year. All their connections, opportunities and training have been stripped from them or are now almost useless. But their desire simply for their children to grow up safe gives them hope.
Our theme for Safe Motherhood Week this year is: Motherhood is our power to shape the future. It is everyone’s responsibility to make it safe. What are your thoughts on this as it relates to the refugee crisis?
We must come to the point where we recognise the ultimate truth that a child that is suffering is my child, is my responsibility. We all share the responsibility of care for every child.
We would not leave French or British children in such conditions. We would not leave French or British pregnant mothers in such conditions. How can it be acceptable to allow Eritrean, Afghan, Syrian, Iraqi children and mothers to live in such a way? Every time we do nothing, we place our stamp of approval on this inaction.
If people want to help, here are four ways they can do so:
1. Contact your public representative and/or local councillor. Tell them you would like to them to use all their influence and pressure to get the children and women out of Calais. Ask them to make more places available here in the UK for refugee families in who have made it to the EU. The UK is languishing near the bottom of European tables in the numbers of refugee families we have and plan to resettle. We should play our part. It is very very simple to write to your elected officials in the UK; go to http://writetothem.com/ and pop in your postcode and the website will guide you through the rest.
2. Sign up to Refugees Welcome to say you are prepared to help out in your area to support a refugee family or help support a refugee children here in the UK (https://www.refugees-welcome.org.uk/).
3. Sign the following petitions: to resist the closure of the Calais camp, as the manner of its eviction could well lead to the disappearance of unaccompanied children like the last eviction did, and the management of the refugees is appallingly callous and puts them in danger (https://www.change.org/p/unite-with-refugees-sign-the-petition); bring the unaccompanied children in Calais to the UK so they can be safe and have a future
4. If you are a teacher, humanitarian aid project manager or fundraiser then please get in touch with CalAid at email@example.com