Shining a light on the needs of displaced women in northern France

By Katie Richards and Frances Timberlake, Refugee Women’s Centre

Women and girls have been in makeshift settlements on the northern French coastline since the early 2000’s. Some travel alone; others travel with children or partners. But these camps have always been home to primarily young single men, making women a less visible minority that faces its own challenges.

Since the destruction of the so-called Calais ‘Jungle’ camp in 2016 and the state-funded La Liniere camp in Grande-Synthe months later, displaced women, men and children have had little access to safe shelter, sanitation, legal advice and protection from violence and exploitation.

Despite their different backgrounds, displaced women in Calais and Grande-Synthe are linked in their attempt to reach the UK for a range of reasons including family ties such as partners, language pulls and as a last resort after being refused asylum elsewhere in Europe.

Refugee Women’s Centre activities

Women and girls in Grande-Synthe

The camps around Grande-Synthe (neighbouring the city of Dunkirk) have been home to many women, who often travel in family units. Most are Kurdish from Iraq or Iran, though there a number of Farsi-speaking Iranian, Arabic-speaking Iraqi and Kuwaiti Bidoon women.

In mid-September 220 individuals lived within families in Grande-Synthe, including 50 women. Over the last year, the Refugee Women’s Centre has supported an estimated 450 women, including 30 women travelling alone. We have witnessed a concerning increase in women travelling alone, mainly from Iraq and Iran.

Women and families here have left their countries due to political repression and instability, religious persecution, economic hardship or ‘honour’-based violence. Those travelling alone most often report having fled domestic or ‘honour’-based violence, persecution as a result of their sexual orientation, or having been separated from their husbands during their journey.

Women and girls in Calais

Over the last year, about 35 women have passed through Calais. The majority are Iranian travelling in family units, while others have travelled alone from Eritrea or Ethiopia, often fleeing indefinite military conscription, political persecution, ‘honour’-based violence or Female Genital Mutilation or cutting (FGM/C).

Few families lived in Calais previously, but this has changed in the last year with more Iranian families and single mothers arriving with children from West Africa. Most women travelling from Africa arrive through Libya to Italy.

In 2017, there were more women in Calais (around 50) but these numbers fluctuate. At the moment, many of these women have moved on to Brussels or the surrounding area in an attempt to find better shelter. While people report having less access to food (one meal a day) and facing brutal police violence, having a stable place to sleep each night is the biggest pull factor for displaced people, alongside access to medical care and legal information.

New arrivals have dropped dramatically since the reinforcement of European push-back operations to Libya and the crack down on search and rescue ships.

Displaced family cooking in Grande-Synthe

Access to shelter

Camps and makeshift settlements around Calais and Grande-Synthe are systematically evicted, up to every 48 hours, with few long-term and suitable alternatives offered. Between August 2018 and June 2019, 738 forced evictions took place in Calais alone, keeping people in a constant state of insecurity and instability.

Women in particular suffer from unstable shelter, forcing them into unsanitary and undignified living conditions and putting them at greater risk of exploitation. Despite the right to emergency shelter guaranteed by French law, shelter services in Dunkirk consistently say they have no provisions for women or families.

In Grande-Synthe, accommodation spaces offered by the state are insufficient. When the option is offered, people are rarely told where they will be taken. They may end up in isolated centres with little access to transport, food, healthcare or sanitation. Often, there is no clear information on French asylum systems.

Accommodation centres vary greatly. Some facilitate access to local hospitals and dentists, provide hygiene products and clothing, and create supportive relationships with those living in the centre. In these conditions, more families choose to claim asylum in France.

In other centres, there have been too few social workers, at times one social worker to 200-300 displaced people. In the summer of 2018, a nine-month pregnant woman was taken to a centre with no social workers. In each attempt to visit the hospital she was blocked by the police, despite having a ticket. This leads to many people returning to makeshift settlements.

Access to information

There is a dangerous lack of information relating to legal procedures and asylum for those living in makeshift settlements. Legal advice is difficult to obtain. A recent court order [i]was issued for the French state to provide information on people’s rights in Grande-Synthe inaccessible languages, but this has been poorly enforced.

With most services operating in English or French, women – fewer of whom speak foreign languages – are greatly disadvantaged and must rely on others for information. This is particularly dangerous given that most displaced people have Dublin III fingerprints in another European country[ii] and are caught in a complex legal limbo. Many communities admit that their biggest source of information is other displaced people, including criminal groups, and are often influenced by rumours.

Aftermath of an eviction- a teddy bear and small child’s life jacket Oct 2019.

Access to hygiene facilities

Makeshift settlements generally have little to no access to clean running water, showers or toilets[iii]. When they do, they are unclean and doors often lack locks leaving women feeling unsafe. This is in violation of international standards[iv] relating to reproductive health rights.

Certain groups monopolise the showers and toilets and charge others for their use. Incontinence pads are in high demand, with many women avoiding toilets altogether, especially at night.

Childcare, especially for new-borns, is difficult with limited access to clean water and washing facilities. Illness and infection are passed on quickly including scabies, head lice and impetigo.

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV)

While SGBV is by no means specific to any context or culture, displaced women living rough lack access to adequate support. Travelling alone, they are a target for harassment, rape and exploitation. Often, single women ‘partner’ with a man for ‘protection’, but these situations tend to go hand in hand with exploitation.

Women who face violence from their partners have little recourse to state support. When they report it, they are rarely offered safe accommodation and police hardly ever trigger a full investigation. Police have also been known to normalise abuse as “cultural”, ignoring these women’s enormous efforts to come forward and the impact that displacement has on families.

When abuse survivors claim asylum, they face many barriers to meet the often unrealistically high standards of proof required. Being undocumented and not speaking English exacerbates existing obstacles such as not knowing your rights or what services are available, or having to prioritise the need to find secure accommodation over leaving an abusive situation.


Women travelling alone regularly disappear from camps. We suspect that many are housed in private accommodation by organised networks for the purposes of sexual exploitation, forced prostitution or sex work. Single women, who generally have less money, are more likely to end up in debt bondage.

When these women have come to our attention, it is clear that there have been no meaningful follow-up or safety measures by the authorities.

Access to medical care

Whilst there is a hospital service for undocumented people in Calais and Dunkirk, the hours are limited and interpreters are not always present. Some hospitals have attempted to deny access to free pregnancy termination for undocumented women.

The lack of access to medical care is concerning in light of the sexual and gender-based violence that women face in the area. There are few safe spaces where women can disclose sexual health concerns or pregnancies, forcing some to travel to Brussels for terminations.


Despite President Macron’s 2018 promise[v] to focus on education for all children in France, hundreds of children living in makeshift settlements or even state accommodation centres cannot go to school. Many have spent years out of education, affecting their behaviour and well-being, as well as their psychological development, ability to form healthy attachments, desire to learn and their future prospects of integration.

With virtually no state safeguarding structures in place, children living rough are at risk of sexual and economic exploitation, especially when unaccompanied or with a single parent.

The community plays an important part in looking after children, and they are often a great source of happiness to everyone around. We have seen that, if a child has loving and attentive caregivers, it buffers the impact of external stressors.


There is little state care for displaced women and girls in northern France, but support groups in the area work hard to provide information, meet basic needs and facilitate access to services that do exist. We continue to put pressure on the state to take their responsibility in this regard, particularly with regard to shelter and sanitation.

Women living in makeshift settlements remain strong advocates for their own living conditions. There have been collective protests[vi], and the (re-)construction of home and community spaces under constant threat of eviction and police aggression is testimony to people’s unrelenting drive to assert their basic rights.

Women, in particular, show fierce solidarity in caring and providing for each other. Hope and a desire for stability continue to hold strong in the face of exhaustion and daily rights violations for displaced people on the northern French coastline.








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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