France's shame

Today, the Guardian has a report on conditions in the refugee camp at Dunkirk, just up the French coast from the infamous "jungle" at Calais that was cleared at the end of 2016. "Women and children 'endure rape, beatings and abuse' inside Dunkirk's refugee camp" proclaims the headline. This is of course the shiny new refugee camp, supposedly built to international standards, that was opened less than a year ago.

It makes harrowing reading. Here is an excerpt:
The witness statement from another volunteer, who could speak Arabic, describes how a 14-year-old from Morocco appeared to have been raped and could not sit down and kept repeating that he felt so “ashamed”. 
Their account stated: “He didn’t want anything, he was only crying and asking for his mum. He had been badly beaten."
The worker also described how a young child had been sexually assaulted on site, leaving her mother so shocked she had been rendered mute. “We have also seen in the past a woman holding a seven or eight-year-old girl by her arm next to GSF [the charity Gynaecology sans Frontières has a unit on site] and apparently this child had been raped just before, and the woman was afraid to report it to police. She was there, standing silent refusing to report it.”
But hang on. Let's just look at the last two sentences in that excerpt again, shall we?

"....the woman was afraid to report it to police. She was there, standing silent refusing to report it."

This is in France, remember. Women and children in a refugee camp in a supposedly civilised Western country are afraid to report serious crimes to the police. Rape of a minor is a criminal offence in France, as it is in the UK. It carries a long prison sentence. But if the camps are so poorly policed that sexual assault of children goes unreported because of fear, the perpetrators will never be brought to justice. They will continue to abuse vulnerable people with impunity.

Does the Guardian lead on the failure of the French authorities to ensure that women and children in the camp are protected from abuse? No. It blames the UK.

"The fate of those stranded by the UK’s decision to limit taking child refugees from France," says its sub-headline.

No doubt some of these children have been affected by the Home Secretary's decision to end the Dubs programme after resettling only 350 children instead of the 3,000 originally planned. There may well be a case for reinstating the Dubs programme: I for one think the Home Secretary's decision was appalling and would like to see it reversed. I wish those pursuing a legal challenge every success.*

But the stories in this article do not have anything to do with the UK's responsibility for resettling child refugees. They are about the fact that France treats its refugee camps as if they are not part of France. Policing is completely inadequate, and the residents of the camps are effectively deprived of the normal protections afforded by French law. The UK is not in any way responsible for the determination of the French authorities to make life extremely difficult for refugees in the hope that they will go away.

If this story were about the camps in Libya where torture, rape and execution is an everyday occurrence, I might think that it would be right to lead on the UK's responsibility to resettle children from the camps. Libya is ravaged by war and has no effective government. But this is a story about a camp in France. France, a rich Western country with a stable democracy. France, a signatory to the Geneva Convention on Refugees and the European Convention on Human Rights.

To my mind, it would have been a lot more useful for the Guardian to shout about the fact that neither the UK government nor the EU authorities have been able to force the French government to improve its treatment of refugees. The UK government was instrumental in getting the Calais "jungle" closed down: but this was to stop illegal immigration to the UK, not to ensure the welfare of refugees. After the "jungle" was closed down, humanitarian organisations expressed concern about the fate of unaccompanied minors evicted from the camp.

The Dunkirk camp is also under threat of closure, along with other camps throughout Northern France. But closing down refugee camps is not an adequate solution. In October 2016, Médecins Sans Frontières warned that dismantling camps simply condemned refugees to living as vagrants. It called on French authorities to put on hold all plans to evict camp residents and close down camps until suitable alternative arrangements could be made. It is hard not to conclude that "suitable alternative arrangements" are the last thing the French authorities want to provide. They want refugees to leave, not take up residence.

 If the Geneva Convention on Refugees (pdf) means anything at all any more - which is looking increasingly doubtful - the international community must pressure the French government to improve policing and conditions in its camps and detention centres. Denying refugee women and children the protection of the law flouts both the letter and the spirit of the Geneva Convention. France's treatment of refugees who have sought safety inside its borders is a national disgrace.

Related reading:

When the world turns dark
In the bleak midwinter
Europe's shame
Horror story
What have we learned from history?

* Legal challenge to the Dubs decision on behalf of the refugee children of Dunkirk is being crowdfunded. You can find out more and make a donation at CrowdJustice here.

The handy map at the top of this post comes from the Daily Mail. It dates from January 2016. 


  1. Or perhaps France could just dismantle all it's social protection and labour laws. Rev up a flourishing black economy like the UK, thus making itself a magnet for refugees, then hand over the problem to its neighbours

  2. I think it's absolutely right to criticise the French authorities for failing, over a long period, to deal properly (i.e. police and protect)the residents of the camps.But,as I understand it,many of the residents have in effect obstructed matters by refusing to claim asylum in France, wishing instead to settle in the UK.This is not to condone the lack of effective French action: the authorities should either have insisted on taking asylum claims from them or treated them as illegal immigrants, rather than leaving them in an extrajudicial limbo. But neither, to be fair, has been or is easy

    1. Asa point of law and of human rights, your comment is totally wrong. Refusing to apply for asylum does not remove your right not to be assaulted or raped: this applies to adults, and for children the legal situation is very clear. France is in breach of its obligations under French law, EU law and international law to protect all children. Their legal statis is not an issue.

      This brings us back to the allegations against the UK. Yes, the UK has refused to obey the law and allow child refugees to join their families in the UK. May is more concerned with the ranting of right wing extremists than with the human rights of children.

      Both these countries are a disgrace to civilisation. It is indicative of a recent trend among politicians to concern themselves only with their own careers, to put themselves above the law and the general population, and to bring disgrace on their country in order to appease fascist interests. Moreover, it has nothing to do with managing immigration levels or determining asylum policies: this is about indecent versus decent human behaviour. We are rapidly descending to the level that Europe once occupied - -something that seemed unthinkable when I was a child.

    2. Of course refusing to apply for asylum does not remove the right not to be assaulted or raped: I never said that it did. But it remains a fact that most if not all the occupants of these camps would not be there if they had chosen to apply for asylum to the French authorities. If someone is in genuine need of asylum then France is as good a place as the UK: asylum seekers are not entitled to shop around for what suits them best

    3. @hh: I suggest you consult some experts on asylum law. It is far from clear that asylum seekers are not entitled to shop around for what suits them. European countries decided in 1990 (the Dublin Convention) that they would try to stop that practice -- regardless of what international law may or may not mean.

      As for child migrants, even the Dublin Regulation (in the version imposed on politicians by the CJEU) is very clear that minors have the legal right to join relatives in an EU country. The exact mechanism by which that right can be enforced has not be described -- meaning that extreme right politicians like May have a way to deny those rights. After all, not many of the Somali or Eritrean children in The Jungle have a spare £250,000 to take their complaints to the UK High Court.

      What you fail to realise is that the UK has now returned to the point in history where rights are only for the rich. By criticising asylum seekers in France for refusing to compromise on their rights and demanding to join family in the UK, you are actually supporting the far right. I doubt that you are aware of it, which is why I am pointing it out politely.


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