Refugee women and children in the Calais ‘Jungle’ and the dismantling of the camp: Is it really the end?
31 October 2016
Borders Refugees Society
A structural lack of response
What shocked me the most each time I visited1 the refugee camp in Calais, known as ‘the Jungle’,2 was the near absence of any official organisations on the ground. This structural lack of public response by French authorities has been compensated for by the support of local NGOs as well as by diverse grassroots actors from Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland, and also to a large extent from the UK. These organisations have brought the most basic services to the refugees every day and without these citizen volunteer efforts, refugees in Calais would have been left to find their own means of survival. Another striking feature of ‘the Jungle’ is its almost uniquely masculine population. Women are almost invisible to the ‘casual visitor’ but are present nevertheless. They have fled from protracted conflict situations and persecution which have persisted for years in countries including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq (Kurdistan). Particularly among those coming from countries in East Africa, many of them have travelled alone or with small children.
Women and girls in the camp
Refugee women (with or without children) and unaccompanied girls are allowed to stay in a special part of the camp referred to as Salam3 by the refugees, but officially known as 'Centre Jules-Ferry.' This area has better infrastructure than the rest of the camp and, most importantly, guarantees security for 400 women, girls and children.4 While many reports by international organisations indicate that refugee women are undergoing abuse on their way to Europe, violence against women does not stop at the borders of Europe.5
Other refugee women, mainly from Afghanistan and Kurdistan, have travelled with their husbands and small children. To maintain a family life, they often chose to live in the camp in the family area and/or in the containers. In fact, it is hard to know exactly how many women were and still are living in the camp. In early July 2016, the women’s population was estimated to be around 10% of 10,000 residents, which indicates that many of them were living in the main part of ‘the Jungle’ and not in the protected centre. However, the situation on the ground has been changing very quickly, with the latest census revealing that around 8,000 refugees were living in the camp (Help Refugees/L’Auberge des migrants, Census Report, October 2016). This diminution of 2,000 refugees in about three months might be linked to the eviction plan announced by the French authorities following a visit by President Francois Hollande at the end of September.
A politics of deterrence
Following the first eviction of the southern side of the camp at the end of February 2016, containers were used to create housing, providing places for 1,500 people. Until last Monday, families and young people were given priority with regard to living in the containers. The allocation of places in these shelters has been controversial, as refugees have been forced to give their fingerprints in order to access them. Furthermore, overcrowding was common: as one woman from Afghanistan told me, there were 12 refugees living in her container. Her husband and two small children (4 and 7 years old) occupied one half of the container, which was separated by a small partition. The other occupants were all men. She reckoned that it was better than their situation before because at least they felt protected during the night when they were sleeping. However, she explained that she also kept her caravan – in which the family used to live – next to the containers, where she could cook for her children and preserve a semblance of family life. In the containers, there are no showers, no kitchens, and no possibility for the children to play, as they are surrounded by high fences. French authorities have singularly failed to consider the right of refugee families to live together at a time where they need it the most. This is just one among many examples of a politics of deterrence towards refugees in Calais.
An oasis of humanity
Three weeks before the eviction started, I found one small oasis of humanity in the middle of ‘the Jungle’, between the containers and the family part of the camp. It was a violet double-decker bus called 'the "Unofficial" Women and Children’s Centre' (UWCC)6, where women’s basic needs are fulfilled by daily distribution of clothes, shoes, hygiene products, baby milk, and nappies. But women can also come to let off steam, make friends and so ‘they can feel human again’, as one volunteer told me. It is Saturday and this day is designated ‘beauty day’ at this informal centre. Women can have their nails done and hair oil applied. They can also have a face mask while being massaged. They can chat, forget their circumstances for a little while and dream. While we engage in a discussion, young Eritrean girls (all probably under 18) apply henna on their palms of their hands. They interrupt our conversation and ask me to spell the words 'London, we ♥ you' for them. It is not difficult to determine the dreams of these girls and women. For Zaineb [not her real name] from Afghanistan, the dream does not look so distant. She has made it to the last frontier, less than 50km from her final destination, and so close to the family with whom she communicates with almost every day. As she knows that I will be travelling to London the following day, she asks me to bring some personal items to her mother residing in England so that 'her luggage will be there when she arrives.' She has made all the arrangements with smugglers to cross the channel with her family; her brother – also in the UK – is supporting them financially.
The trauma of further displacement
Prior to the dismantling of the camp (first planned for 18 October but postponed to 24 October), some of the volunteers attempted to convince families, and in particular women, to claim asylum in France. They tried to help them overcome their feelings of mourning about the idea of reaching the UK. For most of the refugees, their experiences in France have been limited to their experience with the French riot police surrounding the camp, whose main mission has not been to protect but to contain them. Therefore, France as a place to live has been associated with an accumulation of violence which might even have contributed to a reinforcement of their aspirations to go to the UK. The accommodation centres provided by the French authorities in which to resettle refugees following the destruction of the camp are often located in remote places far away from the big cities. As some women told me, some refugees who left earlier even came back to the camp from these centres, explaining how isolated they felt once they were there. Women actually fear to be alone and are worried about the outcome of claiming asylum as no guarantees have been given to them. They might in fact be sent back to Italy, Greece or Hungary, depending on the routes they followed to Calais. They may also face repatriation if their asylum claim is rejected. To alleviate the pressure of such difficulties and the trauma of again being displaced, grassroots organisations in Calais have already anticipated some of the needs of refugees, especially women and children, once they leave the camp. For example, the UWCC has already put into place an organisation called MEENA7 in the UK to continue supporting refugee women and girls who have crossed the channel. In France, L’Auberge des migrants [The Migrant Shelter Charity] has also set up a network of volunteers8 around the accommodation centres all over France, with around 1,700 citizen volunteers recruited in less than two months. They will be continuing to provide welfare to refugees and make sure that their rights are protected.
Grassroots organisations should have been allowed to be more involved
While many organisations acknowledged that the camp was not a decent place to live for refugees, in particular for the most vulnerable inhabitants, such as women, children and unaccompanied minors, they wished the authorities had organised the eviction in a more dignified way. Everything was done hastily in an attempt to fulfil a domestic political agenda (with the presidential campaign soon to be held in France in 2017), rather than to fulfil international obligations towards refugees. Grassroots organisations, who have built relationships of trust with refugees over the last few months, should have been a lot more integrated in the process. In being so they could have helped the French authorities identify those who were the most in need of resettlement either in the UK or in France, prior to the eviction plan. Today, one week after the start of the camp clearance, there are still hundreds of unaccompanied minors in the camp who haven’t received proper protection and are therefore at great risk of disappearing.
A bitter feeling of déjà-vu
In light of the destruction of the camp, one may wonder: is it really the end? The scenario as we know it today – a poorly planned eviction plan led by the authorities – provides a bitter feeling of déjà-vu, as if history were again repeating itself. The ‘refugee crisis’ in Calais is not new and has been going on for the last 20 years, to varying degrees. As many volunteers working for local NGOs observed, a substantial number of the refugees – including women and children – have refused to board the buses taking refugees to accommodation centres and will be making the decision to remain not too far from Calais, increasing the risks of being abused.9 Others will go but will likely return at some point and, finally, new refugees will reach this transit place in the coming days and weeks. Today is the official end of the ‘the Jungle’’ as we know it, but it will not be the end of the ‘refugee crisis’ in northern France at the border of the English channel. Less than a week ago, women in the camp were still hoping to make it to the UK, protesting peacefully and shouting together: 'Where are the women’s rights?/ we need help/ we are the women/ Under age, over age, the same! / we need England, we don’t want to stay in the jungle / all the women are the same'. Today, women, children and unaccompanied girls are still waiting in the protected part of the camp and are becoming more and more stressed about their future as they have not heard anything from the authorities. This is still the case for the 1,500 residents of the shipping container camp, mainly composed of minors.
The UK has done little (to say the least) to take their share of refugees on its doorstep. Against all odds, it accepted around 230 unaccompanied minors in the last few days preceding the camp’s destruction, among whom are more than 50 girls, all from Eritrea, and who reached London last Saturday afternoon under the Dubs amendment.10 This is a good step but far from enough, and a very last-minute solution to a long-lasting problem that will continue to repeat itself. Long-term solutions struck between the UK and France to promote safe passage, at least for those who are the most vulnerable, should be made sustainable. Finally, the French authorities should take heed of how a politics of repression and deterrence of refugees does not solve any issues but instead only creates more.
About this piece
What to read next
Researchers Marie Godin and Giulia Liberatore (COMPAS) reflect on a recent MSc Migration Studies panel discussion