My cousin - a psychiatric doctor - recently visited the camp at Calais and found out that there is very little medical provision for the refugees there and none at all at the Dunkirk camp. This means that there are over 7000 men, women and children who have little or no access to medical care. Most of them are exhausted, malnourished and many have a wide range of medical problems. Some are severely ill or injured. All are deeply traumatised by the life they have fled from, the horror of their journey and the desperate conditions they now survive in.
Over the next few days I could not stop thinking about this and so I decided to join my cousin and her family on their trip to the Calais camp.
We travelled on the Eurotunnel on Saturday morning and on arrival at Calais, drove past fence after enormous, barbed wire fence to the huge, bustling warehouse where all the donations are sorted. There my cousin and I, along with another doctor and four final year medical students assembled a make-shift set of medical kits from shelves packed with a completely random selection of supplies.
We packed everything into large rucksacks and drove to the camp at Dunkirk. Sleeting rain, driving winds. I put on thermals, waterproofs, wellies, a high visibility vest and walked into the camp.
I looked around in despair - so many tents, where to begin? A volunteer from Lancaster asked me to go to the tents with babies and young children first. So I crawled inside filthy damp tents to examine a tiny coughing baby, a sobbing 3 year-old little girl who had been crying in pain for 2 days, a 15 month old with profuse diarrhea, a young mother with toothache, a man with abdominal pain lying huddled under grubby blankets. As I went around the camp, sliding in the mud, trying to protect my medical kit from the rain, I was stopped wherever I went by people asking me to examine their throats, teeth, eyes or chests. So we stood there, in the mud and the rain and I did my best to assess and treat. Called out to passers by to help with translating. Handed out paracetamol, ibuprofen, rehydration sachets, strepsils, dressings applied to wounds and whatever else could be done. Smiles and thanks from everyone despite their desperate conditions.A sea of mud, ankle deep, hundreds of tents being buffeted by the strong winds - many destroyed and lying in the foul smelling mud. Grim faced men, crying toddlers, everything wet, sodden, caked in mud. Tents hunkered down between trees, desperate people looking for shelter from the howling wind and freezing rain.
Overnight a devastating fire in the jungle, severe burns, a badly injured man had to be carried by other refugees to an ambulance outside the camp. Many tents destroyed, 250 people including several families with small children and babies rendered completely homeless in the pouring rain.
We worked in the Calais camp today - The Jungle. Tents and mud as far as the eye could see, overflowing portable toilets, burst water pipes creating muddy lakes, cooking smells mixed with the stench of waste and sewage.
We went to the camp medical center - four small caravans stocked with very limited medical supplies. Surrounding these caravans was ankle deep water, mud and waste that the fast-growing queue of refugees had to stand in and wait to be seen.
I could not do enough. Over the next hours my skills and experience were stretched to their limits. Trying to assess and treat so many ill people with such limited facilities. No antibiotics, no effective medication to treat the serious infections and illnesses that we saw, no translator other than fellow refugees who spoke broken English, no access to running water. It was the hardest, most challenging experience of my life. Leaving the camp to catch our train was almost harder still; we just could not get to the end of the ever growing queue of sick people desperate to see a doctor.