On 5th December 2019, experts gathered in the European Parliament to discuss the situation of women and girls in displacement in northern France, in a high-level roundtable meeting hosted by Jackie Jones MEP, Claude Moraes MEP and Refugee Rights Europe. The meeting participants include diverse actors joining together to seek collective actions that could be taken in solidarity with the women and girls.
An overview of the key challenges facing displaced women and girls in northern France.
Like most displaced people in northern France, women and girls typically come to the area with the hope of eventually reaching the UK to claim asylum. Women and girls have been present in makeshift settlements along the northern French coastline since the early 2000s. Some travel alone, whilst others travel with children and/or partners.
Many of the women in the Grande-Synthe area have left countries such as Iran, Iraq and Kuwait due to political repression and instability, economic hardship or so-called ‘honour’-based violence and domestic abuse. In Calais, there are women and girls from countries like Eritrea or Ethiopia, who have travelled alone from their country of origin, often fleeing indefinite military conscription or female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C).
The main challenges faced by displaced women in the area, including inhumane and degrading living conditions, police harassment and lack of access to information and legal advice. The difficulties caused by camps and makeshift settlements around both Calais and Grande-Synthe being evicted up to every 48 hours, with few long-term and suitable alternatives offered.
This maintains people in a constant state of insecurity and instability. Women, in particular, suffer from the lack of stable shelter, which forces them into unsanitary and undignified outdoor living conditions, puts them at greater risk of exploitation and undermines their trust in authorities.
Gender-based violence on women and girls in France
Women and girls travelling alone face great risks of different forms of sexual violence, harassment and rape. Rape would be perpetrated by men in displacement, or by people residing in France. Women and girls were reported to regularly disappear from camps and informal settlements.
Organisations operating on the ground suspect that many are trafficked and housed in private accommodation by smuggler networks for sexual exploitation. Some single women, therefore, partner up with single men and present themselves as a couple as a ‘protection’ measure for the woman, who feels at risk from smugglers or other men around them. Tragically, these situations often result in exploitation and violence too.
Absence of state support on gender-based violence
Meanwhile, it was stressed that women experiencing sexual and gender-based violence have little recourse to state support. Single women generally have a shortage of money when arriving in France and are likely to end up in situations of debt bondage. When these women and girls report violence to the police, no meaningful follow-up or safety measures are put in place by the authorities. These women and girls have therefore come to the attention of organisations such as the Refugee Women’s Centre through alerts from the police or the hospitals.
Regardless of immigration status, the lack of full access to appropriate health care and accommodation is a concern of sexual and gender-based violence that women and girls encounter in Calais and Grande- Synthe. This include denies access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, particularly during pregnancy and following rape (in line with the Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP).
The voices of women and girls
Due to the importance of ensuring the voices, opinions, wisdom, and lived experiences of the women and girls themselves, some of the quotes and testimonials from Refugee Rights Europe highlights very clearly the urgent need for action.
- “We don’t feel safe in our tent, and at night, we can’t sleep till the morning.”
- “I’m alone here and I’m afraid of going to smugglers and male persons because everybody here looks at me with angry eyes”.
- “Due to violence caused by the police, we lost many friends. […] I lost two of my friends.”
- “The police pushed me to the floor and beat me” and “The police beat me with a baton and took my phone”
- “French citizens have shouted at me that they hate black people” and “On the road [the French people] always make monkey chants [when they see me].”I lost my unborn child [due to tear gas], and for this reason, I feel bad.”
- “I lost my unborn child [ due to tear gas], and for this reason, I feel bad.”[i]
Recommendation on the situation of women and girls in northern France
The distinction between the crimes of trafficking and smuggling sometimes becomes blurred, where smuggling involves illegal movement across national borders facilitated by a third party, and trafficking may or may not involve movement but always includes exploitation by a third party, which in the case of adults has to be done by deceptive or coercive measures. It is crucial to maintain competence among frontline workers in France, such as police, immigration authorities and social services to prevent trafficking among women and girls in northern France.
Moreover, women experience a lack of information about their legal rights in comparison to men hence remain seriously disadvantaged to international protection. As it is not easy for women to seek asylum on gender-related grounds, states must constantly proof and re-interpret the asylum definition to ensure it does not fail women and girls who claim asylum on such grounds.
Structural solutions on the violation of Human Rights
The need for common objectives, policies and common implementations in European states was reported as a long-term structural solution. Moreover, the need for civil society to be conscious and responsible for the implications of terminology was highlighted.
In the context of northern France, France must meet the minimum standards enshrined in Directive 2011/36/EU and Directive 2012/29/EU. This includes the need for gender-specific assistance: safe house, material assistance, medical, psychological help, training/education, interpretation. There must be attention to victims with special needs – pregnant, disabled women and girls, victims of serious violence and/or sexual violence, as well as early legal aid.
The need for full implementation of the Istanbul Convention in France and all EU member states, to accept and respond to the trafficking of women and girls like any other form of gender-based violence. Besides as a legal obligation to give protection to women making gender-based violence asylum claims regardless of their legal status.
Furthermore, the EC and Council of Europe GRETA to assess specifically how States screens for trafficking in high-risk areas such as informal refugee camps and how extremely vulnerable victims (single women and children) are identified. Civil society ought to work with GRETA and GREVIO and keep accountable the State on their response to violence against migrant women.
Standing with women and girls in northern France
In concern to women’s right and equality, there is a major window in terms of opportunity for civil society and MEPs to act, to ensure that migrant and refugee women’s rights are properly considered into the Strategy. The EU hence should end violence against women and men, with a particular focus on the specific situation of girls, and work for the implementation of a gender-sensitive humanitarian response and push for the gender mainstreaming of the asylum system.
The executive director of Refugee Rights Europe, Marta Welander, emphasised that this expert roundtable meeting was just the first step of what the organisation hopes will be continued collaboration with interested partners.
Refugee Rights Europe, alongside partners, will be reaching out to the meeting participants and other parties to propose joint actions in solidarity with the women and girls in northern France, to ensure we continue to do everything we can to foster greater support for them, to hopefully find a new life in safety and dignity.
- [i]See https://refugee-rights.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/RRE_SixMonthsOn.pdf and https://refugee-rights.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/RRE_UnsafeBorderlands.pdf