In a time when people across the world are told to stay home due to the Coronavirus pandemic, what happens when you have no home to return to? This is the case for hundreds of displaced people, including around 50 women and 65 children in Northern France, who are being helped by grassroots charities such as the Refugee Women’s Centre (RWC).
Displaced people have arrived in Calais and Grande-Synthe in Northern France since the early 2000s, with numbers sometimes in the thousands, despite the two most well known camps – the unofficial ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais and the official La Linière camp in Grande-Synthe – being closed in 2016 and 2017 respectively. People congregate in these informal settlements due to the proximity to the UK border, which for many, is a hoped-for final destination.
In place of larger NGOs, many of which left between 2016 and 2017, small grassroots charities such as the RWC have stepped in. RWC is a 100 percent women-run charity that provides on the ground support to displaced women in Northern France. Previously operating from a structure in La Linière camp, RWC has continued since the camp closure in 2017 by providing mobile support. But now in 2020, with the spread of Coronavirus, how can RWC and other charities move forward to protect both themselves, and the people they support – in particular, women and children—who are among the most vulnerable?
Life inside the Refugee Women’s Centre in Northern France
Frances Timberlake is one of three RWC members currently on the ground in Northern France. Timberlake has been with RWC for four years, and is one of four coordinators for the organization. “Our day to day duties include a lot of advocacy and data collection work,” Timberlake explains to me. “A lot of our job, since the beginning of confinement, has been asking state authorities to put in place extra responses … open up suitable accommodation, install water points, making sure food is still being distributed given that associations who used to do this are now lacking capacity and lacking volunteers.”
This has been the case for RWC since mid-March, after French President Emmanuel Macron, made an announcement urging the French population to severely limit movement. “Any gatherings outdoors, any family or friendly gatherings, are no longer allowed,” Macron said in his March 16 statement, warning that “anyone who does not abide by those guidelines will be punished.”
Access to Basic Hygiene Within Refugee Camps
As large portions of the French population have entered confinement since Macron’s announcement, “the state has been very slow to implement measures for displaced people in Grande-Synthe and in Calais,” says Caroline Cottet, who is the Co-Founder of both RWC and Maison Sesame, another charity supporting displaced women in the area. “Initially, it was just guidelines, similar to the ones given to the rest of the country: how to wash your hands, how to sneeze, to keep social distancing.” Cottet explains. “Obviously, those measures were not really applicable for people with little to no access to water, no roof over their heads, no access to electricity.”
With roughly 600 people currently living in informal settlements around Grande-Synthe, including an estimated 50 women, this has presented challenges in complying with the order. Hygiene is a particular issue in preventing the spread of Coronavirus through the community. “The conditions in the camps remained really bad up until recently,” Timberlake adds. “There were no showers or toilets available at all. Two weeks ago they installed shower and toilet blocks, which are okay, but… 24 showers and 4 toilets are not sufficient for a population of around 600 people.”
The Struggle to Stay Informed
Beyond basic hygiene, access to information has always been an immense challenge for displaced people, and particularly for women. With the presence of Coronavirus, this existing challenge has new, even more life-threatening consequences. “All of the information about the French State’s measures, the impact on the office, on society, on law, is all in French,” says Cottet. And as Timberlake explains, “[This] particularly affects women here who typically have less interaction with associations and a lower knowledge of either English or French.”
As the situation in France evolves daily, many displaced women and their families face increased barriers in accessing information, which would help them both understand and adapt to the situation. Lacking this information, combined with an increased lack of presence from associations on the ground, creates “a dangerous gap” for the entire displaced population, as Timberlake says. This gap is then filled by smugglers, who may provide false information, encouraging people to continue trying to cross the border. “Any woman already vulnerable becomes much more vulnerable, whether to abusive partners or exploitative groups in the community,” Timberlake adds.
Pushing for Suitable Accommodations for Refugees
Despite their slow initial response, the French government has made steps to open up accommodation and move displaced people into shelters. Unfortunately, this response lacks nuance in regard to the displaced population’s unique needs and priorities. It has therefore had limited success, and in some cases increased the risk to this population. Charities like RWC have insight to why these campaigns are failing now, and have continuously blundered in the past.
“Hordes of CRS [Compagnies républicaines de sécurité] vans came in and obliged people to leave [to accommodation centers],” Timberlake says of the operation, which began the week of April 12th. “They’re not given information on … exactly where they’re being taken” she says. “The majority of families went, but many have returned to live back in the informal camps.” This forced evacuation, without providing information in a manner appropriate to the community, is just one contributor to the instability regarding accommodation.
The accommodation centers’ living standards is another issue. “[They] are often of quite poor standard and they have a lack of access to suitable food,” Timberlake explains. She describes the accommodation centers as “quite crowded” and “dirty” – factors which don’t make people feel safe. Timberlake notes that the inadequacy of the accommodation centers is “due to the lack of funding for them, it’s not that the organizations running these centers are inherently incompetent.”
Many displaced people leave the accommodation centers to return to the informal settlements in Grande-Synthe. This is in response to poor living conditions, and the fact that accommodation centers are often “isolated centers in the middle of nowhere,” as Timberlake describes. The return journey’s difficulties and dangers are exacerbated by current confinement regulations. “It’s really difficult to get transport anywhere. A lot of trains are not letting anyone who looks like a refugee on. The police are stopping people when they go out,” Timberlake says.
Even so, displaced people persevere in returning to Grande-Synthe, where they have access to their community, as well as a location close to the border where they can continue to try and cross. “Some people actually feel it’s easier to remain in ‘the Jungle,’” Timberlake says. “From there they have much easier access to ports and car parks to go and try [to cross the border].”
The combination of forced evacuations, lack of information, poor living conditions, and isolated locations have all contributed to movement patterns that are increasingly dangerous with the spread of the virus. This danger may be especially prominent for women. As Cottet explains, “those rough living conditions are always hardest on people who are vulnerable, which include being a child or being female in this context.”
Despite the inadequate and broad-brush government response, Timberlake says that RWC will continue asking the French government “to open unconditional, suitable accommodation in the area where people are already living.” She says that suitable accommodation would look like “non-mixed shelters so that women and families have access to safe spaces, one with dignified access to services, access to food, access to healthcare, access to COVID-19 testing, and access to proper sanitation facilities, not shared bathrooms.”
How Coronavirus is Impacting Refugee Shelters
The spread of Coronavirus has amplified institutional and systemic barriers in meeting the basic needs of Northern France’s displaced population. But another challenge, of course, is the virus itself.
“There are people who are exhibiting signs of COVID-19,” Timberlake says. “I think three confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the [Grande-Synthe] camp, and a similar number within Calais.” Due to the transitive nature of the community and the lack of testing, it is of course difficult to source confirmed figures.
The virus also presents a challenge to volunteers with RWC and other charities in the area. Instead of worrying for their own health, Timberlake says her team is much more worried about transmission. RWC is taking strict measures to limit physical contact. The team aims to “avoid possible transmission with people in ‘the Jungle,’ of which there’s pregnant women, elderly people, [and] young children who would be much more adversely affected by it.”
While the RWC team is young and healthy for the most part, other charities in the area rely on people who are retired, Cottet points out. “[These volunteers] therefore couldn’t continue going outside,” she says. Timberlake also acknowledges the impact on other charities, noting there are “some volunteers who’ve tested positive and had to leave, of course, and then the rest of the team goes into isolation.”
How You Can Help
Advocacy, however, may not be enough when it comes to the long-ranging impacts of Coronavirus. “I am most worried about the impact of the pandemic post-deconfinement,” says Cottet. She cites economic difficulties, which could mean less financial support for charities. She also worries about less pressure from the media on the state, to implement appropriate provisions for displaced people’s basic needs.
The situation in Northern France is not limited to Coronavirus. Cottet says conditions have gotten increasingly “precarious” over the last three years. “[There is] more and more police violence, more evictions, and a fewer number of charities and volunteers to support, due to the dwindling presence of the media in the camps…I worry that the pandemic and its side effects will further accentuate this trend.” Despite these challenges, RWC, alongside other charities and their volunteers, are committed to continuing their work. Here are the ways you can support the Refugee Women’s Centre and other charities in supporting displaced women:
- Support the Refugee Women’s Centre fundraiser for monetary donations to help continue their operations.
- Donate to the Refugee Women’s Centre by purchasing items of its needs list, which is regularly updated here.
- Stay updated with the Refugee Women’s Centre on their Facebook page to see their reports on conditions in Northern France.
- Contribute your time, energy, and funds to local refugee or asylum-seeker charities in your own area.