Women in Calais camps: Focus on Surviving

With the one women’s centre full, female migrants must take their chances in the main camp, often with children in tow and where there is no security

By Emma Graham-Harrison in Calais

Hannah is 24, five months pregnant and can’t remember the last time she had a shower, let alone a medical check-up. The Syrian says she trekked through eight countries, her belly growing all the time, before ending up at Calais.

Here she walks another two miles every evening to try to sneak on to trains and lorries to reach Britain. When morning dawns and she is still in France, she slowly retraces her steps to the makeshift camp.

“It’s dangerous, but I can’t do anything else,” says Hannah, who does not want to give her last name. Her husband has been granted asylum in England but has been told he cannot legally bring her to join him. Her family are from the bombed-out city of Aleppo, so she cannot go home.

“I am very tired and stressed. I don’t want anything, just to go to England,” she says, walking through the migrant camp on the outskirts of Calais. “Yesterday I got inside a lorry, but they found us with dogs.”

Hannah is one of more than 200 women living in the sprawling tent city, nicknamed “the jungle”, that is home to Syrians, Eritreans, Afghans and other migrants who are trying to cross to the UK through the Channel tunnel or are waiting to hear if they have been granted asylum in France.

Women make up around 10% of the camp’s population but have gone largely unnoticed, in part because early arrivals were secluded in a heavily guarded camp for women and children, but its 100 beds filled up long ago.

“They said there is no place for me with the women, I have to sleep in the men’s area,” says Hannah, one of three Syrian women living outside the guarded enclave. She says she was turned away from the showers at the women’s centre, which are meant to be open to all, and had not been told about a charity clinic in the camp.

The packed out women’s centre means others must now take their chances in the main camp, which has no security or street lighting, let alone dedicated toilets or bathrooms for women.

“I cannot sleep in ‘the jungle’. Maybe if somebody drinks, I am frightened …” says Hayat Asrat, 21, her voice trailing off. “I didn’t know a single person when I got here, it’s too difficult.”

Asrat’s father died when she was six and she left Eritrea with her remaining family soon after, starting a long, painful odyssey, during which her mother drowned in the sea off Libya, that has brought her to Calais. “Every day I walk two hours to the train,” she says. “Nothing changes for days. I am so tired.”

Everything about migrant life is more difficult and dangerous for women, says Maya Konforti, a volunteer with Auberge des Migrants who has been working at the camp for more than a year.

“Most of them are not as quick as men, and often they have a child in tow, so they cannot get into a truck without men’s help,” she says. “They are more vulnerable to harassment, there is no doubt about that, and they need to find ways to protect themselves, but no protection comes for free.”

A woman and her children are apprehended by security at the Eurostar terminal.

A woman and her children are apprehended by security at the Eurostar terminal. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

The women’s basic needs, from soap to sanitary towels, are met by donations but even if the women’s centre expands to 150 beds as planned, it is unlikely to house them all.

They are often reluctant to talk about their problems because they have sacrificed so much to reach the edge of Europe and are focused on finishing their journey.

“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,” Konforti says.

“The police gas us often, but every night we go to the crossing,” says Feven, another Eritrean who looks much younger than the 18 years she says she is. “I came here alone, I cannot stay, so what else can I do?”

Eritreans make up the majority of the women living outside the official centre, fleeing a brutal system of political controls that has driven 3% of the entire population abroad.

“We have not told our family we are here,” says Marri, 24, adding that she has endured the journey for her two children, aged six and four. “The country is no good, there is no freedom.”

One pregnant Eritrean woman miscarried at 22 weeks after falling out of a truck. Others have been more fortunate, with two or three live births, but having a child has made them even more determined to leave for somewhere better.

“You cannot even call this a camp,” says another Eritrean who wants her name withheld because of fears her mother and two siblings still at home might be punished for her flight.

One younger brother was separated from her in Libya, and she fears he may be dead, but says she cannot dwell on the family she misses. “I cannot think about them. I have to focus on how I can stay alive,” she says. “I haven’t tried getting on a train yet, because it is too scary. At any moment you can die.”

Her one consolation is that, in exile, chance reunited her with a long-lost cousin. Her hopes from the contact are modest: that she will not be forgotten if she becomes one of the mounting casualties in “the jungle”. “Whatever happens to me, she will tell my family.”

from The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/31/women-in-calais-camps-i-have-to-focus-on-how-i-can-stay-alive)