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'I’m surrounded by men': Life for women in the Calais ‘Jungle’

Claire Williams, FRANCE 24

Known as the "Jungle", the makeshift camp housing an influx of migrants hoping to get to England is a hostile environment for women. FRANCE 24's Claire Williams and Tatiana Massaad spoke to some of them about the dangers they face.


The stuffy inside of a two-person tent is Milad’s entire world right now. The 22-year-old Syrian is one of the few hundred women who have ended up in the Jungle, making up a mere 10 percent of the camp's three-thousand-strong population.

She is so terrified that some of the camp’s male residents will find out about her that she hardly ever ventures out of her tent.

“I'm surrounded by men,” Milad says. “I don’t know anything about most of them. I don’t speak their language, I don’t know where they’re from and what they’ve lived through. So I have to be on my guard.”

She spends her days listening to the world outside: wind thrashing against the tents, football games in the day and occasional fights at night.

Originally from Aleppo, Milad and her uncle Yasser are trying to reach his brother, a doctor living in London. At first her family refused to let her travel to England where she’s hoping to resume her law studies. But when Yasser said he’d accompany her, the family agreed.

Milad says she wonders “how on earth some women do this journey on their own”.

“They must be very brave,” she says.

She and her uncle arrived in mid-September, after 16 days on the road at a cost, so far, of €5,000.

They’ve pitched their tent alongside the camp's minority community of Syrians – most of the other residents are from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan.

When Yasser leaves to buy food from one of the makeshift shops, he says “the Syrian guys look after her while I’m gone. She can’t come with me”.

“All I can think about is keeping her safe,” he says.

At night they take turns staying awake in case someone attacks them.

‘They don’t know their rights’

Milad has applied for a bed at the women’s centre La Vie Active next to the camp, but she’s one of 80 on the waiting list, and women with children are given priority.

The centre was designed for 100 women and children; currently 115 are living there. Carine Zerouali, the centre’s manager, says they know rape, sexual aggression and prostitution are happening inside the camp and that they’re “pushing the walls” of the Portakabin-like building to try to make more room.

Aida came to the centre two weeks ago after making her way from Darfur to Calais on her own. It took her two months and she found herself spending 10 “dangerous, awful days” on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea.

“I have no idea where my parents are,” she says. “When I was little I was very close to my father, he used to say I was as strong as 100 men. But when I was on that boat I was very, very scared.”

She’s already tried to jump on a lorry crossing the channel several times but so far has had to remain at the centre.

Some women say they choose to stay in the Jungle so they can be near their husbands or boyfriends and within their own communities. They tend to speak very little and hide their faces when they see a camera.

Faustine Douillard, a social worker for the NGO France Terre d’Asile (France, Land of Asylum), visits the camp every day to advise those claiming asylum in France.

“I have to go through the men to speak to the women,” she says. “They don’t know their rights, and that makes them very vulnerable.”

Some are forced to take on male "protectors", who demand sexual favours in return.

Calais is clearly a through-route. Having made it across the Sahara or the Balkans, the Mediterranean and finally across Europe, staying in the Jungle is not an option.

“We’ll just keep trying until we get through the [border] police and the dogs,” says Aida.
“When we make it, we’ll have shown ourselves we’re strong and can do anything.”

Watch FRANCE 24's full report on the plight of women migrants by clicking here.

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