Northern France has been attracting refugees and migrants trying to reach the UK since the 2000s. Activists warn that women and girls especially face dangers, such as sex trafficking, rape, and other forms of gender violence.

Refugee and migrant women and girls in Northern France are at risk of gender-based violence, including rape, forced prostitution, and harassment, a collection of activists and European parliamentarians has warned.

Refugee Rights Europe (RRE) says the French state and non-governmental organisations need to step in to protect vulnerable women.

Calais and its surrounding areas have drawn thousands of refugees and migrants hoping to cross the English Channel. These are people who often have pre-existing ties to the UK, such as family networks.

Because the French government does not allow long-term settlements, such as the former ‘Jungle’ camp, to develop, refugees often find themselves in a cat and mouse game with authorities, where they live in make-shift camps before being forced to move on by the authorities.

RRE said that they had come across reports that women and girls “regularly disappear from camps and informal settlements” making it hard for aid organisations to determine whether they are safe.

The organisation said that many of the women and children who disappear are suspected to be living in private accommodation run by smuggler networks for the purposes of sexual exploitation or forced prostitution.

To avoid the dangers of exploitation by organised criminals, women travelling alone often ‘partner’ with single men for the purposes of protection. However, such arrangements bring their own risk of exploitation and violence.

'Cross-sectoral effort'

Aid organisations say that the only impactful way of protecting vulnerable women and girls is for the state to step in and provide support but current provisions are inadequate. When violence is reported to the police, safe accommodation is not always provided and full investigations are not carried out.

Medical services are likewise difficult to access for undocumented people.

“There needs to be a concerted and cross-sectoral effort to support women and girls seeking safety in Europe,” said RRDP’s executive director, Marta Welander. 

“A good place to start would be to provide safe and undisrupted access to shelter for women and girls, irrespective of immigration status.”

RRE hopes that the backing of European parliamentarians will help shine a light on the situation and force authorities to redress the situation.

On Thursday, the organisation took part in a high-profile roundtable, which highlighted the threats faced by women and children.

Labour Party MEP Jackie Jones said: “Women and girls in northern France have been overlooked for far too long, and it is time for meaningful change.”

Her colleague Claude Moraes, also from Labour, said: “It is unacceptable that women and girls are subjected to sexual violence and exploitation right on our doorstep. I am proud to lend my support to the fantastic organisations operating on the ground to safeguard this vulnerable group, but much more needs to be done by European states.”

Both have pledged to raise the issue in the European parliament.

Women reufgees enter a make-shift church Picture courtesy of Chris Barrett via RRDP
Women reufgees enter a make-shift church Picture courtesy of Chris Barrett via RRDP (Chris Barrett)
Source: TRT World