To provide holistic support for migrant women and families in northern France living without shelter in informal outdoor settlements, or in surrounding accommodation centres. We aim to create safe spaces for women and children, provide the means for those living irregularly to live independently and with dignity, and to advocate for access to shelter and for human rights to be met.
The Women’s Centre is a team of up to nine volunteers, including four long term coordinators. Coordinator roles and responsibilities include advocacy. We draw upon our relationships with the community and knowledge of key issues on the ground and feed that into local and national initiatives fighting to recognise migrant rights. We also have designated case workers who support people in accessing legal support, who safeguard and act on cases of gender based violence, and make referrals to other specialist services such as tracing a missing family member.
Collectively we work with the community to create safe spaces, adapted to learn and share skills or just a conversation over some hot tea. We aim to mark the birthdays of young ones, and any key traditional or cultural events in the community. Our practical roles include shower runs, dentist runs, trips to the hospital, and distributing bedding, clothing, and hygiene items from our van.
Alongside meeting the immediate need by distributing aid, we also advocate and work towards long term, sustainable solutions. We passionately believe that in order to support the wellbeing of people in this context, we need to ensure agency and access to information; including knowledge of their rights, we need to cover practical needs, and we need to provide the resources for people to continue to practice their faith and religion. Finally, we need to have an active role in safeguarding the community, and work alongside other organisations to promote their wellbeing and reduce the risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation. Working in the context of a camp where safety and security is fragile poses many risks, and so we maintain honesty and include the feelings and viewpoints of the community in any actions.
Whilst we never encourage people to take life-risking decisions, such as crossing illegally to the UK, equally, we never force anyone into a situation against their will. We do not take part in smuggling, neither logistically nor financially, and if people ask us for our opinion, the stance of the Refugee Women’s Centre is that asking for asylum in France is a safer option. That being said, we oppose the violent methods used by French police, who often restrain or force people into being taken away to centres elsewhere in France to ask for asylum.
The People We Support
The people we support experience many barriers to safety, justice, healthcare and protection as their insecure immigration status is put before their access to rights by authorities.
We meet families, single women, and sometimes young unaccompanied women in the informal camps in Grande-Synthe or Calais. Here people live with either limited or no access to adequate shelter, and rely on NGOs to provide the basic means to survive. Many experience a systematic policy of evictions, sanctioned by the state as a deterrence measure, one that also ensures people remain invisible and exposes them to violence.
It is estimated that up to 70% of people arriving to Northern France already have unfinished or failed asylum claims in another EU member state. When people reach here, stories of rape, torture, and repeat victimisation either by the state or by people smugglers is not uncommon. Everyone has not yet found a suitable place they can imagine their future and call home. There are many reasons why people have left their home countries, and camps have people from many different countries and backgrounds.
REFUGEE WOMEN'S CENTRE
OUR CORE VALUES
We value the dignity of those we support by providing the means for improved living conditions, and a platform for self-agency and informed decisions.
The women and volunteers openly communicate, and are jointly involved in organising activities and operating the mobile centre.
We practice and encourage liberal and non-discriminatory generosity and kindness towards
To support the volatile and ever changing circumstances, we value curiosity as the essence of creativity and its dynamic role in adapting to and advancing a situation.
Whether this is through creating a safe space, facilitating independence or running skill building activities, female empowerment is at our core.
In the first camp of Grande Synthe, Basroch, women would rarely – if ever – leave their tents, because they were either felt uncomfortable with the conditions in the camp or were not allowed by their husbands to go to social spaces that weren’t female-only. This led to the creation and opening of a first Women’s Centre in two parts: one tent for the distribution of women’s clothes and hygiene products and another to serve as a social space where activities would be organised.
Based on this idea, a Women’s Centre was officially integrated in the planning of the Linière camp in the spring of 2016. The Women’s Centre was a community kitchen reserved for women, and their children if they wanted, in which volunteers would organise material distributions, activities, and generally provide a space in which women could spend time.The overall management of the camp was initially handed to Utopia 56, a French organisation that ran the day-to-day activities of the camp overall and ensured the presence of volunteers in different areas. This included the Women’s Centre. At the end of the summer 2016, the management of the camp was given to a different organisation called Afeji, who only did general management, but didn’t place their employees in specific sections of the camp.
This is when independent volunteers arrived, during the Autumn and Winter of 2016, to take care of the Women’s Centre, and to ensure the continuation of the activities and distributions that were taking place until then. Those volunteers redefined the workings of the centre, boosted the activities and interactions between the women living in the camp and the volunteers, developed its support network around Dunkirk and abroad, and officially created the Refugee Women’s Centre as an independent charity.
Since the fire that destroyed the camp, the Women’s Centre has gone mobile. Using a van, blankets and tarp to create temporary safe spaces, the team on the ground continues to provide close support to female refugees in Dunkirk, and during the summer started to do so in Calais as well. A temporary accommodation centre in the form of a gymnasium opened in Winter 2017 it provided shelter for 250 displaced people including around 30 women and their families. From there we continued to provide the same support. In the second half of the year we also started to support families in two other accommodation centres in the Northern France area.
In 2018 we continued to support families in the temporary shelter set up in Grande-Synthe, home to 250-500 refugees, including 30-50 families. We also visited four accommodation centres and supported a small number of women living homeless in Calais. Our community in Dunkirk was still mourning the loss of two year old Mawda; shot dead by Belgium police, when the temporary shelter was closed in Grande-Synthe at the end of May. During the summer, displaced people in Grande-Synthe camped in a forest area between a railway track and a motorway, known as the SNCF camp.
Alongside GSF, la planning familial and a UNHCR representative, we set up a successful women empowerment group in Calais to talk about sexual health, disperse legal information and cook together at the beginning of summer, that continues to this day.
At the end of August, the inter-association warehouse from which we operated burnt to the ground. Thanks to the incredible generosity from our supporters, we continued our services un-disrupted. Shortly after, the SNCF camp, home to 900-1000 displaced people was dismantled. During the Autumn we once again saw an unprecedented rise in new arrivals, with the informal camp swelling to an estimated 1700. People were living scattered, suffered from complete lack of basic provisions, and lived in fear of police violence, an incident gaining more frequency in the night time. After a number of re-homing operations by the state, the majority of the displaced population in Northern France are living in accommodation centres. We continue to support people in these centres and find shelter for new families arriving to Grande-Synthe.
Over the course of the past year, RWC has continue to change and develop. We have seen a total of 39 volunteers work with us, and have supported an estimated 400 families.
For the first months of the year, most of the families we supported were in shelters opened by the local mayor in Grande-Synthe, one specifically for families – the CCP - and another that was mixed – a gymnasium. After the CCP closed, the gymnasium became the only indoors shelter option for people sleeping in the Dunkirk area and what at first started as a heavily male dominated space quickly became home to over 60 families over summer. This was a combination of inside shared living and families in tents outside amongst the many tents for men. RWC was able to provide services every day at the gym, from distributions to activity sessions in partnership with Project Play. This shelter remained open for 10 months, and a small but strong community was built. It was far from ideal, with crowded and unsanitary living conditions, but for many women this was where they were able to set up a temporary home.
Working in these indoor community settings allowed us to do more psychosocial support and individual casework. During this time we also developed our advocacy actions, particularly in relation to access to shelter and sanitation. In June, we worked tirelessly on a court case against the central French government to demand access to basic sanitation facilities at the gymnasium.
In July our trusty van broke down, and with the help of our supporters we managed to raise funds for a brand new shiny van! This has allowed us to continue our mobile service supporting up to eight different locations at a time.
In September the gymnasium was evicted and once again in Grande-Synthe, people were forced to live in nearby wooded areas. They are facing now daily evictions, inadequate access to sanitation facilities, and decreasing temperatures. RWC has able to be on the ground daily to support families returning to the area and extend our services to four different state accommodation centres in the Northern France. This winter has been the first where no emergency accommodation in the Dunkirk area has been reopened since 2015, leaving the most vulnerable stuck outside.
In Calais we continue to work in the Secours Catholique day centre, helping to organise weekly activity sessions with the women. The number of single women and families arriving in Calais has increased this year. And even with the support of local citizen accommodations and small projects there have still been a number of women and young children sleeping outside in Calais.
In December we moved to a new warehouse space with our partners Collective Aid and Project Play, and continue to build and maintain with other important partners in Northern France whose support is vital to our work.
This year alone we have seen: 39 volunteers, a new van, a new warehouse, and an exciting new collaboration with Maison Sesame – a project working on community shelter for displaced people in Northern France.