After 8pm on August 20, two women from Sudan arrived in Calais. One had a child with her; the other had two. They had been travelling for weeks and, upon arrival, made their way to the Jules Ferry Centre. Run from three military tents, this day centre hands out one hot meal per day and allows access to showers, toilets and electricity points for the thousands of people camped out in the sprawling tent city known as “the jungle”. It is heavily guarded and also contains beds for about 100 women and children.
Within seven weeks of the centre opening in April, all the beds were full. There are already 120 women and children there; volunteers say there is no space for a single extra body. As a result, around 200 women and children are sleeping rough among the 3,000 men in the jungle. This was the situation the two women from Sudan found. It was getting dark and there was nowhere for them to go. It was too late at night for volunteers from various aid organisations to provide them with tents to set up in the jungle. In the end, concerned volunteers made the decision to take them to a hotel for the night. The next day, they began their life in the jungle.
They were part of a growing number of women arriving in Calais, where migrants from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and elsewhere are camped out in desperate conditions, as they attempt to make it to the UK through the Channel Tunnel. The jungle, a kilometre-wide slum of rough sleepers and tents, sprung up over a decade ago, when the Red Cross refugee centre, Sangatte, closed down. It is beset by periodic phases of violence and unrest.
The world is currently in the midst of the worst global refugee crisis since World War Two: more than 50 million people worldwide are displaced. As a result, the number of people trying to access Europe has increased; so too has the number of women making these precarious journeys.
A young Eritrean woman begged a journalist to take her six-year-old child, because it was too dangerous to attempt the final crossing to the UK
“It’s a catastrophic situation,” says Maya Konforti, who has volunteered at Calais for over a year with L’Auberge des Migrants. “Women are more vulnerable than men, especially when there are 200 women compared to 3,000 men. There is a lot of testosterone going around. They have to watch out for themselves and stick together. Women who are alone try to find a male protector, but that protection does not come for free. They don’t discuss it openly, but sexual favours go on.”
Everyone at Calais lives in dire conditions, but female migrants have a specific set of needs. Those who do not have access to the beds at the Jules Ferry Centre are sleeping in tents and, like the others camped there, do not have access to basic sanitation. Megan Saliu, a UK-based activist, set up the fund-raising campaign Supporting Sisters in Calais, to address some of these needs. “Our main concern is getting sanitary pads and basic toiletries out to the women, as well as nappies and wet wipes. But we are also taking useful supplies for men,” she says. “It’s a humanitarian crisis on our doorsteps. These people are stuck. They can’t go back.”
Most people at Calais have undergone arduous, risky journeys and, having sacrificed so much, some are reluctant to admit what dire conditions they are living in. Some have paid smugglers substantial amounts along the way, others have made the trek on their own, which can be particularly dangerous for women. “The barriers for women fleeing persecution are specific to them as women. Once they do get away, the journeys they face are fraught with the danger around sexual exploitation,” explains Debora Singer, policy and research manager at Asylum Aid. “We don’t have exact figures, but a lot of women experience some form of rape or sexual violence on their journey to Europe. They might have to leave their children, which is extremely distressing, or they might have children with them who they are then trying to look after and protect.”
A female journalist reporting on the crisis in Calais told me that a young Eritrean woman had begged her to take her six-year-old child, because it was too dangerous to attempt the final crossing to the UK – jumping into a lorry or climbing over fences – with a child in tow.
The Jules Ferry Centre was built after considerable pressure from charitable organisations. The French authorities, keen to appear tough on migration, are reluctant to expand the operation. “Over a hundred women and children have been living in the jungle for two months now,” says Konforti. “It would take two days to build the prefabricated housing needed to shelter them. It’s disgusting. It’s illegal. That’s what’s so horrendous. The government sets the laws and doesn’t even respect them.”