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Nursing in the Calais Jungle: 'The first thing that hits you is the smell of rot'

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Nurse Elena Lydon describes her experiences helping migrants in the Calais camp known as ‘the Jungle’

Calais jungle

Pictured: one of the first-aid clinics in the camp

In 2015, while listening to a radio chat show, A&E nurse Elena Lydon heard about conditions in the migrant encampment known as ‘the jungle’ in Calais, France. She responded to a call for volunteers and joined other nurses to form Refugee Support, a first-aid service in the camp run solely by volunteers. Today, the group operates from three caravans that have been converted into first-aid clinics.

In the wake of the European refugee crisis, the number of migrants who set up camp in Calais swelled to an estimated 5,000, most of whom were hoping to reach the UK. Since then both Médecins Du Monde and Médecin’s Sans Frontières have been raising the alarm about the dismal conditions and overcrowding in the camp. Of particular concern are over a hundred unaccompanied children who are now living in the camp. I caught up with Elena to find out more.

We’re seeing rat bites and infected wounds from where people have been walking through dirt and human waste

What was it like when you first went to the camp in Calais?

The first thing that hits you is the smell. It’s the smell of rubbish, urine, faeces and just rot everywhere. Then you see people coming out from places that you thought were just uninhabitable. There is mud, water and dirt running down worn-away paths, flies everywhere and seagulls circling above. Then you meet the people and you realise that they’re so grateful that somebody cares and that people have come to help them. Their enthusiasm for life and their hospitality was incredible. We drank so much chai! They were all offering me tea and they all wanted to talk. What they really wanted was for us to bring their story out of that camp - ‘We’re real people in a real situation. It’s not happening over some place else, it’s happening in Europe.’

How do the conditions in the camp affect people’s health?

Well firstly, it’s very overcrowded. In the camp, there are two water stations and 40 toilets, so that gives you an idea of the sanitary conditions. There has been an outbreak of lice and scabies. We’re seeing rat bites and infected wounds from where people have been walking through dirt and human waste. We’re starting to see poor nutrition. People can get meals but it’s just chicken and rice and there’s not much in the way of vegetables. The other thing that you get is respiratory problems because people get tear-gassed quite frequently.

What about the health of children?

There are hundreds of unaccompanied children living in the camp. There’s a day centre for them and a psychology unit with arts and crafts. They can get healthcare from Médecins Du Monde. Due to the sheer numbers of unaccompanied children, it is very difficult for volunteers to keep track of all of them, though they try their best. A lot of them have psychiatric problems because of what they have witnessed. I saw some young boys who came to the caravan looking for condoms and I was also called to see at least four boys with rectal wounds. They all refused to speak to the police but I suspect they were being exploited while trying to earn money to pay smugglers. I did report it to different agencies who tried to investigate. They’re now putting a social worker in the camp but for those boys its too little too late.

Can you tell me about a lasting memory from your experience?

Some refugees I became friends with made it to the UK and I went to see them at an Eid party. To see them all sitting in Britain looking so stress-free, relaxed and happy – treated as humans in a real environment, that to me was very positive.

To support Elena and Refugee Support visit the group’s funding page.


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