By the Refugee Women’s Centre Team
This International Women’s Day, we at the Refugee Women’s Centre are celebrating the inspiring ingenuity, care, and resilience shown by the women that we work with show despite the increasingly hostile environment around them. In the past year, we have witnessed a rise in dangerous small boat crossings across the Channel, deteriorating living conditions in informal camps and accommodation centres, numerous tragic deaths, and alongside this all increasingly hostile border policies.
The global pandemic has further highlighted the vulnerabilities of people on the move and the existing inadequacies of services available to them in Northern France. These inadequacies include decreased access to services, appalling conditions in accommodation centres unfit for social distancing, and reduced presence of associations. For the often-invisibilized population of displaced women and girls in Northern France, these challenges have exacerbated a context that already presented huge adversity.
At least 2,250 members of displaced families have travelled through Northern France in the past year, over 500 of them women. This is no small number of individuals and the patchwork solutions that grassroots NGOs and insufficient state services are able to provide only barely enable people to survive in these conditions.
For displaced people in Northern France, the lack of access to basic needs and services such as shelter, medical support, and legal support creates extremely precarious living conditions. It is incomprehensible to us that this context can continue to worsen, and yet as each year passes it does.
Women and girls in Grande-Synthe
In Grande-Synthe, there has historically been a large population of women and children, many of whom are Iraqi or Iranian Kurds. There are a number of smaller minority groups of Iraqi Arabs, Vietnamese, Afghans, and Persian Iranian families. The lack of access to adequate shelter remains one of the biggest concerns for women and families in Grande-Synthe, all of whom sleep in basic tents in informal camps.
Evictions remain a regular part of life in Grande-Synthe, with major police-led clearances of living sites occurring one to three times a week. The frequency of police evictions last summer led families to hide their camps extremely far away from main distribution points, making their access to essential food, water, and medical services much more limited.
For the second consecutive winter, no emergency accommodation for women and families was opened in the Dunkirk region, despite temperatures dropping to -7ºC in February. The impact that this long-term lack of shelter has had is very far-reaching; without the most basic survival need of shelter being met, addressing other needs and building community becomes much more complex.
Women and girls in Calais
It has previously been uncommon for a large number of women or children to be present or sleeping outside in Calais, but this year we witnessed an unprecedented increase in the population of women and children, quadrupling numbers seen in previous years. The context of Calais is extremely difficult for women and families, as the mixed demographics and geography of living sites make building community and accessing services and support complex.
Throughout the summer, this population contended with frequent violent police evictions and an insufficient provision of services. The majority of the women and families in Calais travel from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan. The number of single women, and female unaccompanied minors, is much higher than in Grande-Synthe.
In this male-dominated transitory context, with limited access to information or support, these groups are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, harassment, and rape. This is particularly worrying in the case of female unaccompanied minors, who should be entitled to full state protection as children.
Specific Issues Facing Women & Girls
Lack of access to adapted medical and gynecological support
- Since the withdrawal of specialised services such as Planning Familial and Gynecologists Sans Frontiers, access to appropriate, consistent reproductive healthcare has become more difficult for women in Calais and Grande-Synthe. When access is available, it is often not adapted or readily available. For a reproductive health issue causing her significant pain, one woman we support was given an appointment for two months later, as she did not feel comfortable seeing a male gynecologist.
- Due to the difficulties of accessing medical services, access to information about contraception and abortions is limited. In cases where women have chosen to have abortions here, there was an inadequate medical follow-up or provision of shelter. This has also been the case following miscarriages.
- In the past year, we have worked with over 40 pregnant women. The support offered to pregnant women does not extend beyond basic medical care, and associations often are put in the position of bridging the gap between this and the holistic and logistical support needed by pregnant and new mothers. Having a baby is a terrifying time for any woman, but coupled with legal, physical and material insecurity, the range of stressors faced by women here is extensive. With their mothers sleeping rough, without full access to nutrition or rest, many babies here are born prematurely.
- Covid-19 has exacerbated the issues with access to medical services for this population. Reduced hospital admissions has meant that individuals can rarely be accompanied for important procedures, and the restrictions in hospitals have frequently resulted in vulnerable people being released back to their tents whilst still gravely ill.
Lack of access to adequate nutrition for infants and nursing mothers
- The different nutritional needs of infants, pregnant women, and nursing mothers are not met in this context, meaning that there is a complete reliance on associations for these purposes. While in Calais there is a state mandated organisation that provides food once a day, in Grande-Synthe there is no state-provided food. For the past year, with the reduced presence of associations, reduced supermarket access due to Covid-19, and certain distribution restrictions in Calais, food insecurity has become a major problem in Calais and Grande-Synthe.
Lack of adapted or dignified accommodation
- The French state offers shelter in the forms of large accommodation centres (usually converted gymnasiums or retirement homes) which are often 2-3 hours from Calais or Dunkirk. Many families choose to stay in the ‘jungle’ instead of these centres, which often do not have kitchens, private bathrooms, or any space for private family life.
- The food is rarely adapted to the nutritional needs of this community, and access to services and support in these centres is incredibly limited, leading people to return to informal camps to access what they need. None of these centres offer access to education for children. These centres are often also overcrowded and not designed for any form of social distancing, creating a large potential for the rapid spread of Covid-19.
Lack of access to water and sanitation
- In the informal camps of Grande-Synthe, there are no toilets nor regular access to showers. In Calais, there is access to showers, but the provision of toilets is limited. Due to the location of these toilets is very exposed and in male-heavy spaces, many women do not feel comfortable using them. Access to toilets is a major concern for women and girls we work with, many of whom express not feeling safe when having to go the toilet outdoors. Incontinence pads are in high demand, especially at night.
- Shower access is limited and has to be facilitated by associations. In Grande-Synthe, women and children have access to showers one afternoon a week, which is woefully inadequate in the context of sleeping rough and having no other sanitation.
- This lack of access to sanitation has a significant psychological impact, but it is also a key medical concern. Vaginal infections and skin concerns such as scabies and impetigo are common. In the context of a global pandemic with significant restrictions on all other parts of life, this lack of access to hand-washing facilities or clean toilets within these informal camps is.
- Throughout this summer, despite a global pandemic, temperatures up to 32ºC, and a population of 1000 in Grande-Synthe and 2000 in Calais, the state provided no access to water in either location. When a waterpoint was established in Grande-Synthe, it was almost a kilometre away from the main family camps, resulting in women having to carry water a long way back to their tents.
Police Harassment and Violence
- The levels of criminalisation that families face has wide-ranging impacts. Many families express fear of going to the hospital, worried that they will be refused care, or arrested, based on the fact that they do not have papers.
- The psychological impact that continuous evictions has is enormous, as it further increases the physical and material insecurity of individuals, as well as breaking up the social bonds and community that exists in these informal camps.
- Women regularly disclose to us stories of police violence that they have experienced throughout their journey in Europe. The material, psychological and physical insecurity drawn from continuous evictions and police harassment in Northern France only further undermines trust in State authorities and disincentivizes people from seeking safety in France.
Access to Information
- We regularly observe the lack of access to information experienced by the women and girls we work with and the negative impacts that this can have on their agency. The lack of translated, appropriately shared information about rights and options for displaced women in the region obstructs their ability to make decisions, threatens their independence, discourages them from seeking support and services, and further puts women and children at risk.
With regards to information about legal procedures and asylum, this is particularly dangerous. Furthermore, reliance on other members of the community for information can increase power dynamics, resulting in the rapid spread of false information, and put individuals at risk.
- This summer, we encountered a sudden increase in the population of families in both Calais and Grande-Synthe. Many of those who arrived at this time were fluent German, Danish, French, or Dutch speakers – families who had spent years in Europe to only have their asylum claims rejected; whose children were pulled from some of the only communities that they had ever known, and were now travelling towards the hope of safety and stability in the United Kingdom. It was alarming to note the lack of legal support that some of these families had received throughout asylum claims in other European countries, highlighting to us the major problem of access to information that exists across Europe.
Lack of private family life
- The impacts that displacement has on families is enormous. In addition to the trauma of police violence, lack of shelter, and extended asylum procedures, the destabilizing effect of a lack of private family life has a major psychological impact. Many of the women we work with express a deep desire to have their own space once again, where they can look after their children, cook the food that they wish to cook, and live their lives by their own timetables. This is emblematic of the dehumanising effect that migration through Calais and Grande-Synthe has upon this population where they encounter repeated,state-led attempts to reduce their existence to that of basic survival.
Lack of Access to safe migration routes
- Boat crossings across the Channel have been common since 2018, but have had significant media coverage in the past year, as many more chose to take this incredibly dangerous route due to increased securitisation around other forms of crossing. The lack of humanity with which the media has addressed this situation conveniently ignores the really shocking aspect – which is the conditions of life for those living in Northern France, and the lack of adequate care that the state takes for those rescued after failed crossings.
- The lack of access to safe migration routes creates a significant potential for the exploitation of women and girls. As is the case in many other transitory contexts, trafficking and sexual exploitation are real threats for women in Northern France. There are no existing mechanisms, protection, or state support for the prevention of this, and when we have sought support on these issues there is rarely any meaningful follow-up or safety measures by the authorities. Furthermore, in the context of not having access to shelter, the ability to access safe spaces and adequate support is significantly decreased. Women that we support have expressed the fear that they feel leaving their tents at night, and the vulnerability that they feel when they go to try – often in isolated areas late at night.
- We frequently work with women who have partners in the UK, or families who have been separated along their journey, and now find themselves on either side of the Channel. In these enormously stressful situations, there are often very few options available, and even fewer following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and loss of the Dublin III family reunification routee. Most families do not have information about or feel unable to embark on, family reunification procedures through the UK’s domestic Immigration Rules due to long waiting times, high refusal rates, and unclear information available.
Deaths at the Border
The reality of the situation in Northern France often only reaches the media following tragic deaths at the Franco-British border. Tragically, over the course of 2020, we worked with more families than ever before affected by deaths of family members at the border. These were not simply the result of Covid, nor of accidents that could happen anywhere. These deaths were the result of hostile border policies intended at doing exactly this: increasing pressure on people in the border zone to leave or to never arrive, by making the conditions so dangerous they become intolerable, or indeed fatal.
- We remember Baqr, a bright young adolescent of a family we closely supported for over a year, who was run over by a train in March 2020.
- We remember Aleksandra, the newborn girl of a family we worked with, who died soon after a premature birth in September following a failed crossing attempt and absence of support from the police who intercepted her family.
- We remember Shiva, Rasul, Anita (9 years), Armin (6 years), and Artin (15 months), a family we worked closely with and who deeply experienced the hostility of this region during their time here. This warm, loving young family drowned in the Channel in October last year.
As outlined above, the situation that displaced women and girls contend with in Calais and Dunkirk is cruel, and indeed intentionally so. Either invisibilised or exploited by the media in their most vulnerable moments, the way this community has been presented in European media is deeply misrepresentative of the way many of them see themselves.
The women we work with are a testament to human’s continued drive to pursue hope, to move, and to resist the violence that is inflicted on them. They are relentless in their desire for stability, continuing to care for each other and their communities in the face of exhaustion and daily rights violations. Throughout this all, we are in awe of the enormous resilience and strength in the women and families we support, who face this situation with a grace and courage we are constantly inspired by.
 973 evictions occurred in Calais last year, read more here: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/jan/13/like-torture-calais-police-accused-of-continued-migrant-rights-abuses
 For further info, read our 2019 report with RRE. https://refugee-rights.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/RRE_WomenAndGirls.pdf