By Miriam Usiskin and Bobby Lloyd, January 2020

“The border creates particular conditions of (in-)visibility, (in-)audibility and (dis-)appearance and in order to intervene in that context, one needs to position carefully in relation to that. Art galleries and cultural spaces more broadly offer us a chance to reflect on those aspects” Forensic Oceonography[i]

Four and a half years ago, Art Refuge made its first visit to the France-UK border town of Calais. Soon afterwards we set up our weekly art therapy project in the makeshift refugee camp (The Jungle) in collaboration with Médecins du Monde. We are still making those visits to Calais on a fortnightly basis as the need for psychological support is even more urgent now than it was in 2015.

Many of those we work with are underage teenagers and young people. Psychological spaces remain scarce, even though the need for these has been identified by us as urgent, as well as by our partners, other agencies and refugees themselves [ii]. This context appears to be worsening, with the hundreds of individuals who find themselves displaced on the border facing heightened security, increased hostility by the French state and ongoing exposure to homelessness, racism and lack of access to legal routes and support.

Refugees forced to camp directly next to the roadside on the edge of Calais. 09.01.20 Copyright: Art Refuge



In 2020, non-governmental organisations working in the Calais area of northern France continue to draw attention to the untenable living conditions[iii]. The high levels of police harassment, intimidation, violence and frequent evictions from living spaces referenced by RRE’s Marta Welander in August 2019 [iv] have not reduced, while the winter months make the context still tougher. During one of our visits to Calais before Christmas 2019, a young man from Nigeria was found dead in his tent from toxic fumes, whilst trying to keep warm.

The urgent need for the British government to provide expanded safe and legal routes to prevent future tragedies could not be more pressing. Protracted Brexit talks in 2019 led to increased UK spending on border controls. With a strong majority, one of the first acts of the new British government in early January has been to reject Amendment 4 of Clause 37 of the Withdrawal Bill which would have protected the rights of child refugees to be reunited with their families after Brexit. With Brexit now a surety, this has dangerous implications on the ground. Tragic therefore that this Clause has been rejected, and now has one last chance to be passed through the House of Lords.

People are being worn down by their experiences, and the hostility they meet is across not just northern France but other borders and countries in northern Europe where they have often tried and failed, to make a successful asylum claim. Worryingly, we are now seeing many of the same faces on each fortnightly visit, with some individuals returning to Calais after trying to gain asylum in other countries and returning to Calais as a last resort. Others have tried again and again to find a way to cross to the UK in a context in which risking one’s life is the norm rather than the exception. Last Friday we spent time with a young man in his 20’s who told us he has spent five Christmases in Calais trying to cross to the UK. Many others, like him, have reached a place of desperation with nowhere else to go. We also increasingly meet young men, underage, from West Africa, and this is new.



As people get trapped in a cycle of rejection from countries across Europe and in the case of France, at the border with no obvious way out of their predicament, we see an increase in depression, anxiety and hopelessness. Here, the direct hostility from police compounds the complex layers of trauma and difficult experiences people have already faced from fleeing their country of origin.

As discussed in a joint paper with RRE in 2018 [v], there is an acute need to ensure more adequate attention is given to mental health, and this ought to lie at the heart of the European refugee response in order to create a safer environment for refugees and European host communities alike. ‘The declining mental health among displaced people is evidently a widespread yet largely overlooked crisis, which requires a concerted and cross-sectoral effort between actors to prevent current and future damage to individuals and communities across the continent’.



The refugees we meet on the border with the Médecins du Monde mobile clinic, at the Secours Catholique day centre and until recently in the Maria Skobtsova safe house, are also often resourceful and courageous people who show tenacity, humanity towards one another and extraordinary capacity for coping and survival.

Using large maps for shelter and creative conversation; working with Médecins du Monde’s mobile clinic. 09.02.19 – Copyright: Art Refuge

By using large maps with Médecins du Monde’s mobile clinic on the edge of the port town, or maps, bricks, found objects and magnifiers at The Community Table in Secours Catholique’s day centre in Calais, we engage with people visually. We see the role that creative spaces can offer in this context. Last week at the mobile clinic, we witnessed moments of playfulness, laughter, problem-solving, absorption, necessary distraction, and opportunities to de-stress. Using maps and cards of flags, we saw the knowledge, intelligence and potential of people to ‘imagine’ something other and hope for a better future.

Poetic installations were made at the day centre table. Viewing these through magnifiers, magical illusions emerged with scale and light being played with. These optics provided different ways of looking, seeing and relooking at objects and places on the map. Encouraging active participation on the part of those at the table, people were making, staying and chatting, and finding companionship.

In Calais with our partners, we have seen courage, shared moments of humanity, imagination, hope, potential and generosity, with people becoming visible rather than invisible. Looking and relooking together at the world map, these people are also audible and present [vi].


Using magnifying glasses, bricks and maps at The community Table, l’accueil du jour de Calais, Secours Catholique, 10.01.20 Copyright – Art Refuge


[i] Forensic Oceonography. June 17, 2020.


[ii] Lloyd, B., Usiskin, M. and Press, N. (2018), The Calais Winds took our plans away: Art therapy as shelter. Journal of Applied Arts & Health, 9:2, pp. 171–84.


[iii] Secours Catholique, Médecins du Monde, Art Refuge, Refugee Youth Service, Refugee Community Kitchen, Refugee Info Bus, amongst others.


[iv] The Independent. August 23, 2019.


[v] Accessed January 16, 2020.



The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.



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