In cities and towns like Calais and Grande-Synthe, that are directly on the border between France and the United Kingdom, there have always been displaced people from many different countries such as Iraq, Sudan, and Eritrea trying to cross the Channel to reach the UK in order to seek asylum. Whilst present in camps in Northern France, displaced people live in extremely precarious conditions, with their basic human rights violated on a daily basis.
The general context and services on the ground have oscillated over the years, but the underlying need for basic support has not changed. The situation in Northern France has continued to degrade year after year.
Since its creation in 2015, the Refugee Women’s Centre has been a daily presence on the ground and supports on average 1,000 women each year.
In 2015, the number of displaced people in Northern France grew very suddenly, as did the public's attention to the issue. This mirrored changes in global displacement trends at the time, to which States were quick to react.
By the end of 2015, there were more than 6,000 people in the newly-formed Calais Jungle. In Grande-Synthe, the number of displaced people grew from 250 to 3,000 in the Autumn of 2015, following which an informal settlement called Basroch was established.
The camp of Basroch was on a large wooded land, on which a real-estate project intended to build a large residential compound. The land quickly became extremely muddy, given the cold and wet conditions in Northern France. When receiving donations, such as clothes, if anyone dropped an item, it would be unsalvageable. It was close to impossible for anyone with reduced mobility to move around, and tents and tarpaulin would easily fly away with the strong winds.
The first "Women's Centre" was created in Basroch, where women rarely came out of their tents. The collective spaces of the camp were largely dominated by men, who generally make up more than 75% of the population in informal camps in Northern France. That's why volunteers opened two places for women: a tent to distribute clothes and hygiene products, and a yurt where they could charge their phones, access the internet, drink tea, and participate in activities and language classes.
In Grande-Synthe, the majority of displaced people have tended to be from Iraqi Kurdistan, and so the work of the Women’s Centre first grew in response to this population.
Once again in 2016, migration was a central topic in European political debates, and what was termed “the European migration crisis” was fuelled by media hysteria. In Northern France, this translated into some State-recognised camps, in Calais and Grande-Synthe, with the presence of national and local authorities. Huge numbers of volunteers and donations coming from all over the world to help. There was effervescence, optimism and ambition to respond to the “humanitarian emergency”. October 2016 marked the official closure of Calais Jungle, when 8,000 displaced people were evicted.
In March 2016, the city hall of Grande-Synthe and Médecins Sans Frontières opened the official “humanitarian camp” of La Linière, in order to replace Basroch. 1,300 displaced people, mostly Kurdish, were moved to this new camp, in which 375 wooden shelters of 12 sq. meters
and 4 community kitchens were built in an area on the outskirts of the town. This camp was designed like a neighbourhood, and had a community life and internal autonomous organisation.
One of the community kitchens was a women-only space and became known as the “Women’s Centre”. Here, volunteers organised material distributions, activities, and provided a confidential space in which women could spend time, could cook and eat together, and build the semblances of a community in transit. On average, there were 80-100 women in the camp, and all of them either came to the centre on a daily basis or were visited in their shelters by the volunteers. The Women’s Centre was considered by many an oasis in the midst of what was otherwise a frequently insecure camp.
In 2017, Calais jungle had already been dismantled and the Linière camp in Grande-Synthe burnt down in April. Therefore, for most of the year, displaced people lived in informal camps, mostly in wooded areas, with tents and tarpaulin. This marked the beginning of regular forced evictions, with very poor living conditions. The French state put in place a system of regular bus departures to take people to accommodation centres for asylum seekers, in order to encourage displaced people to stay in France.
Since the eviction of the Calais ‘Jungle’ in October 2016, all women-focused services no longer existed for displaced people. The Refugee Women’s Centre decided to start providing support there as well, mirroring the mobile service we operated in Grande-Synthe.
In January 2017, the Women’s Centre in La Linière burnt down, and was rebuilt the following month. However, the entire camp was destroyed in a fire in April of the same year, which marked the official closure of La Linière. Since then, displaced people have been sleeping rough in a natural reserve in
Grande-Synthe called Puythouck. In October 2017, the French state started having a presence in the informal living sites, to encourage people to go to state accommodation centres and to ask for asylum in France. Some people would choose to go, others choose to stay in the camps close to the coastline and continue trying to reach the UK. For those who decided to go to accommodation centres, the Women’s Centre started visiting the families there and provided support when needed.
With increasing numbers of families sleeping rough outdoors, the Refugee Women’s Centre completely adapted its services to go mobile, using a van, blankets and tarpaulin to create temporary safe spaces in the camps where we could run activities and distributions. The charity also changed the form of material distributions, in order to provide families with tents, sleeping bags, blankets and tarpaulin, in addition to clothing and hygiene products as had always been the case.
A gymnasium in Grande-Synthe was opened by the city hall in the final days of 2017, as an emergency winter provision, to shelter 250 displaced people including around 30 families. The gymnasium remained open until May 2018.
From May on, informal settlements were routinely set up in different parts of Grande-Synthe, only to be evicted early in the mornings shortly after. This instability meant that people lived in very poor material conditions, with a lot of uncertainty, insecure access to water, no access to electricity, in often muddy terrains.
On May 16th, 2018, two-year old Mawda was shot dead by a Belgian policeman, as Mawda and her family were trying to reach the UK. The family had been staying in the gymnasium in Grande-Synthe and had been supported by the Refugee Women’s Centre.
Throughout the year, the Women’s Centre continued to support women and families in Grande-Synthe and in Calais, constantly adapting the services to the changing living conditions and locations.
At the end of August, our warehouse burnt following a fire. Thanks to the incredible generosity from our supporters, we were able to continue our regular services.
During the Autumn we saw a sharp rise in new arrivals, with the informal camp of Grande-Synthe swelling to an estimated 1,700 people. In the context of increasing evictions and police violence, and worsening living conditions, the Women’s Centre developed advocacy actions throughout the year, in partnership with other charities. This took the form of observing and sometimes opposing evictions, meeting and negotiating with state representatives, asking for basic provisions like access to water and accompanying UN special rapporteurs, journalists and researchers to raise awareness.
Similarly to the winter of 2017/18, a gymnasium was opened in the winter of 2018/19. However, this year it remained open until September 2019.
There was initially a separate building for women and families, which was closed after a few months. Therefore, for most of the year, displaced people shared two large rooms inside of the gymnasium, or those for whom there was no space remained outside in tents. The gymnasium was 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. RWC was able to provide services every day at the gymnasium, from distributions to activity sessions in partnership with Project Play. 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 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.
Due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were limited to phone-based social support and emergency provision drops during the lockdowns in 2020. No extra state provision for displaced people was organised in Grande-Synthe despite the pandemic.
In Grande-Synthe, the informal camps were moved around in different locations in Puythouck Nature Reserve, with weekly evictions and changes in living sites on a regular basis, decided by the municipality and acted upon during massive evictions.
Both the activities of Planning Familial 62 (psycho-social support and specialised case-work) and Gynecology Without Borders (medical support, administrative support and access to a women-only shelter) for displaced women stopped between 2019-20. This created a bigger need for RWC’s support in Calais.
In Autumn 2020, RWC created a dedicated team for Calais. We had been present in Calais, helping to organise weekly activity sessions in a day centre run by Le Secours Catholique. With the increasing number of single women and families arriving in Calais and sleeping outside, we began to build stronger partnerships with organisations in Calais and dedicated one of four coordinator positions to our new project there.
In 2021, Brexit and a new British Immigration Law were acted, making all safe routes more complicated and attempting to criminalize our work. People continued to attempt to cross the Channel, by lorries and boats. This year was marked by an increasing number of deaths at the border, including the deadliest shipwreck yet seen, that resulted in the deaths of 27 women, men and children on November 24th. While our activities were still affected by Covid-19, we managed to maintain a daily presence in the different living sites, and began a transition from a team of volunteers led by four coordinators, to a team which would be run by our first two salaried members.
In Grande- Synthe, no gymnasium or shelter was opened during the harsh winter. A mass eviction marked the end of informal camps in Puythouck Nature Reserve. The communities were moved to the “Ferme des Jésuites” area by the municipality.
The living sites moved regularly as they were evicted once to twice a week by the authorities throughout the year. The population still increased during the summer and the fall, with a number of people living in the camps similar to the time of La Linière.
At the end of the year, the communities were again completely evicted from this area and were pushed further away by a canal, in even worse conditions. Throughout those changes, we continued to ensure our presence 6 days a week for holistic support and one shower session for women and children only per week, in showers provided by the local municipality.
While we had to ensure material distribution at all times, even with major stock issues, it was harder to maintain precious activity moments with women outdoors and creating those safe spaces was a constant effort of the team during the year.
In Calais, the project was fully developed, and we maintained a 5 to 6 days a week presence to offer the same support as in Grande-Synthe.
For additional resources on the chronology of informal camps in Northern France, please visit :
Our Image Timeline
Children playing on rubble
La-Liniere, families sleeping in burnt dilapidated warehouses.
Protest in Grande-Synthe
RWC talking on a panel with Lord Alf Dubs
Child's life jacket
Trip to the zoo with all the families!
Calais Women's Day
She fighter - self defence lessons