By Isma Hassaine-Poirier
They are Erythrean, Syrian or Sudanese, already mothers or expectant mothers. For most of them, Calais is the last stop before their final destination, their gold mine : the United Kingdom. They have relatives or friends there or they see this country as their only chance for a better life. Relentlessly, hundreds of migrants, men, women and children, risk their lives every night and try to cross the tunnel linking France to the UK by sneaking onto a lorry or a truck. Every morning around 6am, the majority of them return to the camp, disappointed but determined to reattempt the same adventure the following night.
The population of the Calais camp is estimated at 3000 people and around 10% of them are women. The Jules Ferry centre for women and children, next to the camp, offers a safe shelter for women, though with only 100 beds, it is already oversubscribed. As there are more women than beds available, if a woman leaves her bed vacant for 24 hours, it will be automatically reassigned to another one. The exact number is not easy to establish but NGOs and associations working on site say that about 150 women are obliged to sleep in the normal camp, nicknamed the “New Jungle”, for the lack of beds in Jules Ferry centre. In the Jungle, there are no sanitary facilities reserved for women, no “streetlights” in the alleys between the tents. Sexual favors in exchange for protection are, for most of these women, the only solution to overcome the ever-growing threats in the camp and the highly vulnerable situation they are in. Men drink in the evening and want to get together with women. This creates an atmosphere of insecurity and fear for women, exposing them to all kind of violence and abuse.
Each personal story is different. Women are fleeing their countries for innumerable reasons and all go through an indescribably dangerous journey before they arrive in France. They want to forget about the traumatising experience, about their lives and loved ones left behind. Maya Konforti, a volunteer with the association Auberge des Migrants, talked to The Guardian about their inability to confide in journalists. “They cannot afford to feel, they cannot afford to remember the difficulties they have been through, because otherwise they cannot keep going. They don’t want to talk about what they have lived.”
Jean-Francois Corty, Director of French Operations for Médecins du Monde (MdM), runs a clinic in the camp and has observed an obvious change in the camp demographics. “Since last summer, we started to have an increase in women and children,” he said in an interview he gave to The Guardian at the beginning of August. He also noted an increase in mortality rate, as migrants get severely hurt trying to climb fences and barbed wires and find themselves with open wounds and limited access to minimal medical care. The health conditions are deeply worrying, toilets are washed only once a day and many migrants suffer from severe diarrhea and scabies. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has appealed to France to establish a global emergency plan in order to handle this crisis and the flow of migrants in better conditions. The UNHCR also calls for an improvement of the cooperation of the UK in this situation.
Four main reasons may go some way to explain the popularity of UK-migration over staying in France, the first one being that the condition for asylum seekers look more favorable. It is also a popular belief amongst migrants that social benefits are better in the UK than in France. Financially, it is not true though, as an asylum seeker gets 343€ per month in France and 212€ per month in the UK. Another reason is the job market. Unemployment is higher in France than it is in the UK, it is easier to find work without ID papers and to work off the books. The last reason is the language. Most of the migrants waiting in Calais come from countries where english is one of the official language, as shown in a report from the Home Office. In the multicultural British society, communitarianism is an important phenomenon and the perspective of finding a community to which they will belong to is certainly an advantage.