This post is authored by Frances Timberlake, who has been working as a coordinator at the Refugee Women’s Centre in northern France, an organisation supporting women and family units in the Calais and Dunkirk camps. Whilst there Frances undertook an independent research project into women’s experiences of displacement along the UK-France border. She is now studying for an MA in Human Rights Law at SOAS, London, whilst continuing to work on advocacy projects for the Refugee Women’s Centre from a distance.
Although the number of women on the move in Europe has surpassed the number of men, young males remain a majority in most European refugee camps. Grande Synthe, a suburb on the fringes of formerly industrial Dunkirk, is not unique in this regard. Since before the 1990s the port has attracted refugees and displaced people wishing to reach the United Kingdom, with numbers increasing dramatically in 2015. For most of this time, refugees arriving in the area – in the last ten years mainly Kurds from Iraq and Iran – have been living in informal tented settlements in the woods around Grande Synthe. Many are in family units. Women, usually travelling with husbands and children, represent a significant minority of the population.
Women meet multiple challenges in these circumstances, and not only because they are a minority. Safely crossing borders, particularly tightly controlled ones, can be much more difficult for women than for men. Men and boys too face extreme hardship and risk in a camp setting, but the challenges are often different.
“This road is very dangerous [for women]. There are problems everywhere.”
For all those passing through, but for single women especially, the tight securitisation of the French-UK border ports has been treacherous. As the border controls have increased, so has the need for, and price of, smuggler passage from northern France to Britain. As a result, the smuggler networks have become stronger and more powerful. Of those women travelling alone, or single mothers, some fall into situations of exploitation and are placed in private accommodation before they are even able to reach the ‘Jungle’ – the name given to the informal camp in Calais, meaning ‘forest’ in Pashtu. Some are left with no choice but to temporarily partner up with a single man and travel as though married, in the hope that this will dissuade unwanted attention. No woman I spoke to felt able to safely ‘go to try’ on the backs of lorries alone, or to negotiate with the smugglers without risk.
“I met him through a friend on my journey. He offered to accompany me and act as my husband. I couldn’t travel alone.”
“We pretend that we’re married. When people ask why we don’t sleep close next to each other I just say it’s because we’re not in a private place, we don’t have privacy.”
Whilst the risk of exploitation is much lower for women in family units, they face equal difficulties in other areas. The married women I spoke to pointed to unstable and unsafe living spaces, lack of access to information and police harassment as the main issues affecting them.
Photo credit: Refugee Women’s Centre
Living conditions in the area around Grande Synthe change regularly, with different spaces being opened, closed, set up or evicted on a regular basis throughout the year. Despite the creation of a hostile zone of perpetual displacement, the port remains a strong pull to the area for many. “Where else would we go?” people ask, “when the reason we are here is to reach the UK?” For those living out in the open, for much of the last year access to toilets and water has been either prevented or limited. This is particularly degrading for women. Many had to ask for women’s pads to avoid defecating in the open. One woman staying in the ‘Jungle’ camp told me neither she nor her children had showered for two weeks.
“There were earthquakes in Iraq, and there’s always fighting in Kirkuk. We’ve trained our children to go inside when they hear something. There’s ISIS, there’s infighting, nothing’s getting better. You always have to be ready to run, where we’re from. We wanted a better life for our children.”
For mothers, asking their children to follow them into the back of a lorry each night, hoping they would remain undetected through the border controls, was a constant source of fear and guilt. One woman spoke of watching her children’s behaviour change to mirror those of the smugglers they came into contact with. Several others said that their children’s health had deteriorated during their journey, and that they had been unable to access help for them.
“My children are taking on a lot of the criminal activity around them, stealing, playing games about breaking into trucks, hitting people. I’m scared the kid in my stomach is going to learn smuggling too.”
Many women said that it was more difficult for them to independently access help. This was in part due to a lack of knowledge of foreign languages – a large number had left formal schooling at a young age and therefore knew little more than the basics of English. Even for those who had been able to continue on to college or university, many women said that their less public role meant speaking to strangers and accessing services was more difficult. They were therefore reliant on family members or their own linguistic community for information and advice.
Photo Credit: Adrian Abbott, Help Refugees (http://adrianabbott.com/)
Although it is often assumed that gendered vulnerability for refugee women exists because of a threat from refugee men, the women I interviewed unanimously felt the most prevalent threat to be the police. This reversal of the state’s role – from protection to aggression – reverses the image we are often presented with of the male refugee as a menace to state or social order. Interestingly, four of the women spoke specifically of concern over police officers’ violence towards their husbands and other men, noting that police behaviour was in general less harsh towards women.
“How can you feel safe here when there are so many police?”
The police in Belgium, where many people now go to find less strictly controlled lorry parks, are particularly feared. Every woman I spoke to said she had either experienced or heard of an incidence of violence by the Belgian police.
“The police in Belgium threw the food at us like we were animals. I’m pregnant with two children.”
“Once the police in Belgium caught us [in a lorry] and drove us round for an hour just to scare us. Then they dropped us at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. I asked them if there was a cafeteria where we could sit somewhere in the warm but they said there weren’t any. We wondered round for a while in the cold and then found an open cafeteria. The police were there drinking coffee. They told us to get out. I started crying, asking them, at least take us somewhere. I asked a truck driver to take us back somewhere, but the police told the truck driver he shouldn’t. A woman in the cafe was looking at the situation, saw us begging the police. She called another set of [local] police to come and pick us up, and made sure we were taken care of. I understood why the police caught us, but we didn’t need to spend the whole night at the gas station. The police told us to leave, but we couldn’t go anywhere.”
As the presence of the state at the border has become increasingly violent,  an interesting space for solidarity and resistance within the refugee community has been created. In the absence of both local and national state support, many women said that safety and help came primarily from others within their own community.
Although the information was not always reliable, the presence of other refugees was therefore essential to being informed about everything from European asylum systems, to their rights, to local support services – and in their own language. Even smaller smuggler networks operating in the area have begun to take on an informative and material welfare role in a bid to meet the un-catered-for needs of their ‘clients’, although this generally comes with a financial cost. Reliance on refugee-to-refugee support, often more sustaining than the support volunteers can offer, is another reason drawing people back to the port area following evictions and dispersals.
Women as agents
Despite the multiple difficulties faced, few of the women painted themselves as victims. Indeed, the defiance and resilience displayed challenge the notion in humanitarianism of women as a vulnerable group per sé, rather than individuals who are made vulnerable through a certain set of situations.
Throughout their journeys, women remain key supports in both their family situation and living circumstances. Several of the women I spoke to said that their main form of emotional support came from other women around them. Aware of the extra help often given to women by authorities and aid organisations alike, many would make use of their presumed vulnerability to access extra support or material goods for their family and friends.
The community of women also made use of gendered forms of resistance. In August 2018, during a planned eviction of one ‘Jungle’ site of around 800 people, the community of women organised a protest against the police’s destruction of their belongings and living space. Early in the morning, they stood hand in hand blocking the armed police cars and bulldozers coming down the road, fearless in front of the threatened tasers and tear gas. The women made sure that themselves and their children stood in the front row, saying that the police would be less willing to hurt them than their husbands.
Following a long stand-off, that day’s eviction was halted. The women whistled, the policemen retreated. No physical violence was shown. In a striking display of defiance and solidarity, these women used their gender to assert their presence, resist authority and protect their community.
“She is the one to tell me to carry on, to keep going. Sometimes I’m weak, but she gives me strength” [husband].
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This article is based on seven formal interviews with women in a shelter in Grande Synthe, northern France, between January and May 2018. These were all Kurdish Iraqi women, the ethnic majority in the camp. The interviews were carried out with an interpreter whilst I was working with the Refugee Women’s Centre, who aim to create a safe community space and to foster relationships between women in the camp.
My interviews focused on notions of safety and access to support as perceived by women in the camp. Their answers were testimony to the struggles of all those displaced in the area faced with lack of access to information, police violence and the stress of living with irregular status. These were acutely felt by women who, as a minority in the camp and with the added responsibility of caring for children, experienced layered hardships. However, the women I spoke with pointed also to particular forms of resilience and resistance, rejecting a simple identification of them as victims.
My observations are specific to Grande Synthe and to the population there. My interviews took place with women who were all in shelter at the time, meaning access to shelter featured less in their concerns. However, following the closure of the shelter that had been made available over winter 2017/18, all new refugees arriving in the area – including women and young children – have had to sleep in outdoors settlements until spaces in accommodation centres become available. These spaces are not guaranteed and are officially for one month only. Since this time lack of access to safe and dignified shelter has featured as a much larger concern not only for women but for all those in the area.
With special thanks to the Peter Kirk Foundation who funded this project, and to Hoba Gull who acted as a Kurdish Sorani interpreter, and a moral support, in my interviews. Without them the project would not have been possible. Thank you also to the team of tireless and dedicated volunteers at the Refugee Women’s Centre whose work continues to be an inspiration.
 United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs, ‘International Migration Report’ (2017) p 15 <http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/publications/migrationreport/docs/MigrationReport2017_Highlights.pdf>.
 Interviews conducted with women in Grande Synthe, northern France between January and May 2018.
 Camille Lafont, ‘Assouat, le caid des passeurs’ (20 August 2018, L’Express) <https://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/societe/assouat-la-terreur-des-passeurs_2026021.html>.
 OHCHR, ‘France urged by UN experts to take effective measures to bring water and sanitation services to migrants’ (April 2018) <https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22917&LangID=E>.
 See, for example: International Rescue Committee, ‘Europe Refugee Crisis: urgent action needed for protection of women and girls’ (2016) https://www.rescue-<uk.org/sites/default/files/document/1041/irc-european-refugee-crisis-women-and-girls-briefing-3-august-2016.pdf>.
 One of the most shocking incidences of violence towards refugees by the Belgian police was the shooting of a two-year-old Kurdish child on 17 May 2018, during a car chase. The girl had been staying with her family in the winter shelter in Grande Synthe, where the entire community remained shocked and traumatised at the news of her death <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/may/18/belgian-authorities-admit-two-year-old-girl-was-shot-after-police-chase>.
 See: Human Rights Watch, ‘”Like Living in Hell”’: Police Abuses Against Child and Adult Migrants Living in Calais (2017) <https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/07/26/living-hell/police-abuses-against-child-and-adult-migrants-calais>.
 Caroline Cottet, ‘On Privilege and Activism: Shelter’ (November 2018) < https://www.dunkirkrefugeewomenscentre.com/single-post/2018/11/10/Voices-from-the-ground-On-privilege-and-activism>.