Views & Reviews Personal View

The BMJ’s Christmas appeal 2015: the refugees of Calais and Dunkirk are in dire need of medical aid

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 21 December 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h6924
  1. Bryony Corbyn, specialist registrar in child and adolescent psychiatry, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, London,
  2. Morven Telling, sessional GP, Oxford and Bristol; GP, Babylon Health and the Vitality GP Service
  1. Correspondence to: B Corbyn bryony.corbyn{at}

Two UK doctors saw the physical squalor and mental suffering in the camps at first hand. The charity Doctors of the World is well versed in bringing care to the most vulnerable people in developing and developed countries, including refugees in France, which is why we’ve chosen it for The BMJ’s Christmas appeal this year. Please give generously

The refugee camps in northeastern France are now home to more than 7000 adults and children from diverse backgrounds. They include unaccompanied minors, elderly people, and people with disabilities. Many are traumatised. Most are malnourished. Many have physical and mental health problems and lack sufficient access to medical care and support.

Concerned by the lack of a humanitarian response to this growing crisis, we decided to offer our time and skills. Arriving in France just two weeks later through a voluntary medical aid organisation, we formed a team with another doctor and a group of final year medical students. We gathered medical provisions from a charitable warehouse in Calais and assembled makeshift medical kits. We packed stacks of donated dressings, first aid supplies, and over-the-counter drugs into our rucksacks.

Bleak, dire conditions

On the drive towards the Dunkirk camp, sleet and driving wind set an expectation of bleak, dire conditions. However, nothing could have prepared us for the suffering and despair we witnessed as we walked into the camp. Our path quickly became a sea of foul, ankle deep mud. Hundreds of tents were being buffeted by the strong wind, and many were lying flattened in the mud. We looked around: grim faced men, crying toddlers, everything wet and sodden.

So many tents; where to begin? One of us (MT) headed to an area sheltering families after hearing reports that some babies were unwell. She crawled inside a succession of filthy, damp tents, examining several babies with symptoms ranging from fever and respiratory symptoms to vomiting and general distress.

She saw a feverish infant who had been crying for several days and diagnosed tonsillitis. She assessed another child with profuse diarrhoea and provided rehydration sachets. She examined a little boy who had asthma and a persistent cough due to constant smoke from the numerous camp fires.

MT was also approached by a young mother with severe toothache, an older woman with symptoms of a urinary tract infection, and a man with lower abdominal pain, huddled and groaning beneath his blanket. She handed out small, rationed quantities of simple analgesics, cough linctus, rehydration sachets, and skin creams.

Frequent psychopathology

The other one of us (BC) walked through the camp offering similar aid and encountered frequent psychopathology. Speaking to refugees, it was impossible to ignore their comorbid psychological symptoms. Depressive and stress related symptoms were rarely volunteered, but a high level of distress was easily observed.

Many people asked for sleeping tablets, some describing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, hypervigilance, and an exaggerated startle response. Some refused food despite obvious malnutrition. Many showed signs of low mood with self neglect and a loss of motivation, energy, and hope. Dissociation was apparent during some interactions. Many refugees, including several children, spoke openly about highly traumatic experiences and continuing hardship, with little emotional reactivity.

For the rest of that cold, wet afternoon we were stopped wherever we went, by people pointing to their throats, mouths, eyes, and chests. Others pointed to their soaking wet shoes or thin jackets, hoping that we might have dry clothing to offer. We crawled into tents to dress wounds and assess ill children and adults until night began to fall.

On our second day we volunteered at a first aid caravan in the Calais camp. Our skills and experience were stretched to the limit as we struggled to keep up with an ever growing queue of people. Again we faced barrier after barrier in trying to assess and treat so many ill people with such limited facilities: no antibiotics, no effective drugs to treat the serious infections and illnesses we saw, no translators other than refugees who spoke broken English, and no access to running water.

We never reached the end of that ever growing queue of sick people desperate for help. We could not do enough.

The BMJ’s Christmas appeal 2015: donate to Doctors of the World

  • £80 could provide 10 psychological consultations for survivors of war

  • £135 could provide an emergency backpack containing drugs and consumables used by mobile doctors to treat refugees in Greece and the Balkans

  • £180 could provide 25 hygiene kits for refugees living in poor sanitary conditions throughout Europe

Donate online:

Donate £10 by text message: text DOCTOR to 70660 (UK mobiles only)

Donate by phone: +44 (0)20 3535 7955


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h6924

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