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Letter to French ministers: RWC highlights the worsening situation for women and girls on the northe

Today, the Refugee Women's Centre and Refugee Rights Europe sent a joint letter to the French Prime Minister, Minister of the Interior and Secretary of State for Gender Equality regarding the worsening situation for displaced women and girls living rough on the northern French coastline.

In light of the multiple rights violations we see on a daily basis, we have called for the rights of women and girls specifically to be upheld. This includes access to appropriate shelter and healthcare as well as protection from violence and recognition of gender-based violence as a form of persecution in line with the Istanbul Convention. Please find the English version of the letter below:

Grande-Synthe, 11 February 2020

Monsieur le Premier ministre, Monsieur le Ministre de l’Intérieur, Madame la Secrétaire d’Etat,

We, the undersigned organisations and individuals, are writing to draw your attention to the situation of undocumented women and girls in northern France and call on you to take urgent action. In order to stay true to its core values of human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law, we call on the French government to respect the human rights and dignity of women and girls who are seeking safety within its borders.

It is well-documented that women and girls in the northern France area face high risk of exploitation, abuse and untreated health concerns. Since 2015, at least 6 displaced women and girls have died in the area, although numbers may be higher as these deaths often go unreported. Their safety and security are constantly compromised and there is a huge gap for state and non-state actors to fill, if the rights of women and girls are to be upheld in line with not only the Istanbul Convention but also the Displaced women and girls’ rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and UN High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) gender-sensitive guidelines.

In search for safety from hardship, violence and abuse, women and girls have, as you know, been present in makeshift settlements along the northern French coastline since the early 2000s. Some travel alone, whilst others travel with children and/or partners. Many of the women in the Grande- Synthe area have left countries such as Iran, Iraq and Kuwait due to political repression and instability, economic hardship or so-called ‘honour’-based violence and domestic abuse. In Calais, there are women and girls from countries like Eritrea or Ethiopia, who have travelled alone from their country of origin, often fleeing indefinite military conscription or female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C). Most of the women travelling from African countries arrive through Libya to Italy, typically having experienced wide-ranging forms of abuse and hardship along the journey.

We call on you to ensure that the French government implements, without any reserve, the Council of Europe Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (Istanbul Convention), which guarantees the fundamental rights of every woman to be protected from gender-based violence at individual, institutional and structural level, regardless of her legal status. In particular, we would like to draw your attention to Chapter VII of the Istanbul Convention, which calls on states to implement a gender-sensitive humanitarian response and gender-mainstream the asylum system.

Women and girls travelling alone face great risks of different forms of sexual violence, harassment and rape. They are reported to regularly disappear from camps and informal settlements. Organisations operating on the ground suspect that many are housed in private accommodation by smuggler networks for the purposes of sexual exploitation and trafficking. Deplorably, the women and girls experiencing sexual and gender-based violence have little recourse to state support. Even when women and girls have reported violence to the police, safe accommodation has not always been offered and the report has not triggered a full investigation into the incident. Single women generally have a shortage of money when arriving in France, and are likely to end up in situations of debt bondage. When these women have come to the attention of organisations such as the Refugee Women’s Centre through alerts from the police or the hospitals, it is clear that there has been no meaningful follow-up or safety measures put in place by the authorities. The lack of access to appropriate medical care, including sexual and reproductive health services, is particularly alarming in light of the high risk of sexual and gender-based violence that women face in the area. Whilst there is a hospital service for undocumented people in both Calais and Dunkirk, the hours are limited and interpreters are not always present. Some hospitals in the region have attempted to deny access to free pregnancy termination for undocumented women.

In line with France’s commitments under international law, we urge you to undertake the following measures:

  • Ensure improved access to safe, stable and appropriate accommodation regardless of a woman’s immigration status. This needs to include both long-term and emergency accommodation, in line with French law and EU and international human rights law.

  • Guarantee full access to healthcare including sexual and reproductive healthcare, particularly during pregnancy and following rape (in line with Minimum Initial Service Package, MISP) and regardless of immigration status.

  • Maintain competence of front line officials through the provision of full training for police officers and border and immigration staff on identification of sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking, and to put in place effective referral mechanisms. This must include gender- specific assistance, early identification, recovery and reflection time to all suspected trafficked women/girls, as well as assistance on an informed and voluntary basis (and not linked to police cooperation).

  • Apply Article 17 of the Dublin Regulation, which allows each member state to examine an application for international protection even if this is not its responsibility according to the Dublin Regulation. This would help ensure that vulnerable individuals in the area who wish to seek protection in France are not dissuaded from doing so due to fear of removal to a third country under the Dublin Regulation. The suspension of the application of the Dublin Regulation would be in line with article 53-1 (alinéa 2) of the French constitution of 1958.

  • Uphold Article 60, Chapter VII of the Istanbul Convention which obliges states to take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that gender-based violence against women may be recognised as a form of persecution within the meaning of Article 1, A (2), of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and as a form of serious harm giving rise to complementary/subsidiary protection. It moreover obliges states to ensure that a gender- sensitive interpretation is given to each of the Convention grounds and that where it is established that the persecution feared is for one or more of these grounds, applicants shall be granted refugee status according to the applicable relevant instruments.

  • Ensure attention to victims with special needs – pregnant, disabled women and girls, victims of serious violence and/or sexual violence. There must also be early legal aid (“without delay”) and immunity from prosecution, and compensation. Hence France must meet the minimum standards enshrined in Directive 2011/36/EU and Directive 2012/29/EU.

Please be informed that we are also communicating with the UK government regarding its role in addressing the situation of prospective asylum seekers being unable to access its asylum system and thus becoming trapped in a limbo in northern France. Accordingly, we are calling for structural and long-term change through the opening of new legal routes to seek asylum in the UK.

By prioritising the goal of ending violence against displaced women and girls, France would demonstrate its willingness to abide by its duty of due diligence to prevent and answer to violence against women and girls more broadly. By implementing special measures for displaced women and girls, France would help ensure that no one is left behind, a universal declaration enshrined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Looking at the most vulnerable demonstrates a country’s ability to realise human rights.

Many thanks for your time and attention to these important matters.


François Guennoc, L’Auberge des Migrants

Catherine Baker, Every Child Protected Against Trafficking UK

Sinem Yilmaz, European Network of Migrant Women Maddy Allen, Help Refugees Kirrilee Reid, Maria Skobtsova Safe House Calais Aagje Ieven, Missing Children Europe Camille Boittiaux, Refugee Rights Europe Frances Timberlake, Refugee Women’s Centre Jonny Willis, Refugee Youth Service Didier Degrémont, Secours Catholique – Délégation Pas-de-Calais

Antoine Nehr, Utopia 56 Calais

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