Babies in the woods and forced evictions, the shocking plight of refugee families in France


‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

No one ever chooses to be a refugee. However, the world is now facing the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. It may be shockingly under-reported in the media; but the truth is that today, many people, including pregnant women and those with babies and young children, are homeless and are being forced to live rough in makeshift camps hidden in the dense woodlands of Northern France.

Families are continuing to arrive as refugees, often to find themselves with no shelter other than the basic but lifeline cover of tents, tarps and sleeping bags that are provided mainly by the humanitarian organisations working on the ground in areas around Calais and Dunkirk. Inadequate sanitation facilities can be a major issue in these camps, including a lack of toilets. According to a report by a volunteer on the ground with the Dunkirk Refugee Women’s Centre, adult women have been asking for diapers to use for themselves because they are so afraid for their safety that they do not want to leave their shelters at night. People may find themselves unable to access healthcare, with a staggering 60 per cent of the women interviewed in the Calais region reporting that they did not know where to access maternal health services, with a notable example of a woman who reported having to give birth ‘in the back of a truck’.

Families are continuing to arrive as refugees, often to find themselves with no shelter.

In September 2017, French Police staged a mass eviction of an area known as the ‘Dunkirk Jungle’, the woodland area where many refugee families were living literally in the open air save for their basic, makeshift shelters. The eviction came just one day after the Interior Minister for France Gérard Collomb rejected the plan to develop a new and much-needed humanitarian camp for the refugee families that had received support from the mayor and incorporated sanitation facilities for the families in the area. These proposals never came to fruition.

According to a volunteer witness account, the authorities were in place ready to execute the eviction as early as 6.30am, leaving it to the volunteers to enter the camp area to try to wake families in a bid to get them ready and attempt to save their scant belongings. At about 7.20am, the volunteers were told by the French police to leave the area, and despite their efforts to continue to help the families, they were eventually forced to go as the eviction was carried out. Shelters, sleeping bags and personal belongings were indiscriminately destroyed and the people, including young families, were forced on to buses and taken to state-run reception centres elsewhere in France. This kind of intervention rarely shows humanitarian compassion. Women living with cancer as well as pregnant women and small children were also forcibly removed. Recent accounts of similar evictions from unofficial refugee camps such as these show that the people often come back, preferring to live without proper shelter in the open than in the conditions imposed by some of the state-run reception centres.

Michal Bělka [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Michal Bělka [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

So, how in the world did this happen? Although immigration remains a hot topic for the UK media, becoming a refugee actually has nothing to do with entering another country to seek a better life. Economic migrants are not refugees. During recent years there has been a marked increase in conflict situations affecting certain parts of Africa and the Middle East. This resulted in more than one million people being forced to flee for their lives, eventually arriving in Europe as refugees. By the summer of 2016, more than 6000 refugees, including many women and children had reached Northern France.

A refugee is defined under international law by the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This states that to establish refugee status, an individual must show a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. They must also be outside their country of nationality and be either unable or unwilling to return, and it is essential to demonstrate every aspect of the criteria.

Image: courtesy of Dunkirk Refugee Women's Centre

Image: courtesy of Dunkirk Refugee Women's Centre

Many refugees have family members already in Britain, however they themselves have no way to legally enter the UK. This is the reason that some parts of Northern France have become so densely populated by many of those hoping to eventually apply for UK asylum and be reunited with their families, because in order to apply for asylum, an individual must be physically present in the UK. According to data collected this year by the Refugee Rights Data Project, about 37 per cent of children interviewed confirmed that they did have family members already in the UK.

Now that the winter – or “grand froid” – is approaching, the situation facing the families that remain in the makeshift refugee camps is becoming more desperate than ever. Already, seasonal storms have left the shelters and blankets soaked after heavy rainfall, and although the weather is often unpredictable, there is no doubt that it is going to get colder.

As a global community, we did learn some very important lessons from the World War II, culminating in The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations and is based on the premise that we are all born equal. It is viewed as a common standard of achievement of all people and all nations to promote respect for the rights and freedoms and to ensure their recognition and observance. But for the many children who have been forced to spend their entire lives in refugee camps, and for the women with pressing health issues who do not know how to find the care that the rest of us take for granted there is clearly still a long way to go.

A refugee is defined under international law by the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 14. (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Article 25. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.