The Refugee Women’s Centre ground team is made up of up to eight volunteers and four coordinators.
Our team works together to provide material and psycho-social support for displaced women and families in northern France. Our daily activities include the distribution of bedding, clothing, and hygiene items from our van; the organisation of activity sessions both in indoor and outdoor spaces; and accompaniment to appointments.
Our case work involves supporting people in accessing legal and medical support; responding to cases of domestic and gender based violence, and making referrals to other specialised services.
Our advocacy work draws on our relationships with the community and our knowledge of key issues on the ground and feeding that into local and national initiatives fighting to recognise migrant rights.
Collectively we work with the community to create safe spaces for women and families - spaces suited to the learning and sharing of skills or just a conversation over some hot tea.
To provide holistic support for migrant women and families living without shelter in informal outdoor settlements, or in surrounding accommodation centres across northern France. We are committed to creating safer spaces for women and children; to providing them with the means to live with dignity, and to advocating for access to shelter and for other human rights to be met.
As well as attempting to meet immediate material needs by distributing aid, we also advocate and work towards long term, sustainable solutions. We 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 an insecure camp can pose risks both to our volunteers and to our service-users; so we maintain transparency with the women and incorporate the feelings of the community in our activities.
We would never encourage someone to take a dangerous decision like making a clandestine crossing to the UK. We do not take part in smuggling, either logistically nor financially, and if the people we support ask us for our opinion, seeking asylum in France is a safer option. That said, we aim to give people the means and the information necessary to make the decisions that they feel best for themselves. We oppose the violent methods used by French police at the border, which include the destruction and confiscation of personal property and forced evictions in which people are taken to far-away accommodation centres without adequate information and sometimes even against their will.
The People We Support
We support women and families: this includes parents with their children; unaccompanied women; single parents; and families who have become separated during their journey. They come from many different countries and backgrounds and there are many reasons why they have left their home countries. One thing in common is that they are all still looking for suitable place to build a home and create a secure future.
It is estimated that up to 70% of people arriving to northern France already have unfinished or failed asylum claims in other EU member states, and this is reflected in the families that we encounter. Many have experience long and difficult journeys from their home countries and through the European asylum system. Amongst the displaced populations here, stories of rape, torture, and repeat victimisation at the hands of both states and members of the smuggling network are not uncommon.
The displaced women and families we support experience multiple barriers to education, justice, healthcare and other rights. They live with either limited or no access to adequate shelter, and often rely on NGOs to provide the material means to survive. Many experience regular police evictions of their living sites, a result of a state policy of deterrence and invisibilisation The continued presence of displaced women and families in northern France points to both their own resilience and the futility of this policy.
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.
Our Her-Story Timeline
In the first camp of Grande-Synthe, Basroch, women would rarely – if ever – leave their tents, because they 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 the first Women’s Centre in two parts: one a tent for the distribution of women’s clothes and hygiene products and another to serve as a social space where activities to be carried out.
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, in which volunteers would organise material distributions, activities, and provide a general space in which women could spend their 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 and ensured the presence of volunteers in different areas, including the Women’s Centre. At the end of the summer of 2016, the management of the camp was given to a different organisation called Afeji, who did the 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. 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 of 2017, providing shelter for 250 displaced people including around 30 women and their families. From this base we continued to provide our support to women and families and in the second half of the year we also started to support families in two other accommodation centres in Northern France.
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 homeless women in Calais.
Our community in Dunkirk was still mourning the loss of two year old Mawda; shot dead by Belgian 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 the 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, suffering 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 continued 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 indoor 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 during the summer. This was a combination of inside shared living spaces 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 carry out 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 was 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 Northern France. This winter was the first since 2015 where no emergency accommodation in the Dunkirk area was reopened, 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. 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 links with other important partners in Northern France whose support is vital to our work.
This year big changes for RWC include: 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.