When privacy doesn’t exist: Women in Dunkirk’s La Linière refugee camp deal with frequent exploitation, sexual assault

Photo by Cole McCauley

Photographed and written by: Tess Allen

DUNKIRK, France — The woman gets up quietly in the dark, stepping carefully so as not to wake those around her. There are five of them sleeping on the floor of a roughly 10 foot by 14 foot wooden shelter. She slips on her worn shoes; they were once black but they are now coated in the same fine, beige dust that coats everything and everyone in the camp.  

She steps out onto the uneven, jagged gravel and the night air hits her cheeks. She shuffles between graffiti-laden shelters and down the dirt road, about 50 yards to the nearest bathroom.

The smell of feces and urine hits her nostrils before she even steps through the raised doorway. She shuffles blindly forward on the floor that’s wet with stale water, feeling for a stall door. Her hand catches the edge of the door, and she goes inside.

She pulls the door closed, but it slips back open about an inch. She pulls it again, but the same thing happens. She goes about her business.

Minutes later, this woman is raped.

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This is a common story in La Linière, which, prior to being burned down on April 10, served as a refugee camp and temporary home to over 1,500 people in Grande-Synthe in Northern France. Its reconstruction is currently a point of contention between local and national authorities.  

La Linière was a refugee camp in Grande-Synthe just outside of the suburb of Dunkirk in Northern France. Since the camp burned to the ground on April 10 as a result of a dispute between groups of Iraqi and Kurdish refugees, government officials are at odds about whether to rebuild the camp. The fate of this camp and its nearly 1,500 refugee inhabitants remains uncertain.

Life in La Linière was difficult. But for women, La Linière was a place of even greater danger, a place where they were more likely than not to be sexually assaulted.

“The percentage of [female refugees] who are sexually violated approaches about 100 percent,” said Dr. Arun Kapil, professor of political science at the Global Institute Paris.

According to a volunteer who requested anonymity to protect her position in the camp, refugees are often exposed to violence, abuse, assault and/or rape by their smugglers.

“This is seen by many as ‘just part of the process’ and so many people are so desperate to get [to another country] that they’re ready to do whatever it takes to get there,” she said.

Sarah Galloon and Elly Harvey, British volunteers in the camp who worked with female refugees, believe that the mix of cultures and the fact that these refugees were being “treated like animals” was a major factor as to why so many men in the camp were acting out.

“You have a melting pot of communities and cultures in a mix in one small space, and you’ve also got Western culture mixing with a completely different culture, where women’s place and women’s understanding and women’s acceptance is different,” Harvey said. It’s in these circumstances, she goes on to say, that problems arise.

According to Galloon, a group of volunteers recently took it upon themselves to attempt to place locks on the doors in the women’s bathrooms after months of camp administration not doing anything about it, but they were told that they were defacing government property and instructed to “cease all construction immediately.”

While police monitored the camps during the day, they pulled out at night, leaving the refugees unprotected.

Volunteers were asking people to donate incontinence pants, or adult diapers, for the women so they didn’t have to risk going into the bathrooms at night.

Women were raped inside of the bathrooms in La Linière at night due to lack of policing and the government’s refusal to provide lights or locks for the bathrooms. Some volunteers eventually successfully installed lights and locks against orders; their identity has been withheld to maintain their safety.

Even the female volunteers ran the risk of threat and assault.

One of the organizations in La Linière—known as Kesha Niya kitchen—provided daily meals for refugees in the camp until they left on March 31 after a year of service, not only because of difficulties with the local government, but because one of their female volunteers was endangered.

“I think the police, from what I’ve heard, are not taking [the problem] seriously, and I think they just don’t want to do much,” Galloon said. “They just want to do as little as possible. That’s my impression.”

But the camp security told another story.

According to one of La Linière’s security managers in an interview translated from French, they did not have many problems with crime or delinquency in the camp aside from the occasional issue related to alcohol and drugs. They refused to explicitly address the issue of sexual assault within the camp in the interview.

When security did deal with issues in the camp, Galloon says, they were often quite brutal and used unnecessary amounts of force. On December 31, police attempted to find smugglers in the camp, and when they were unsuccessful, they began firing rubber bullets and tear gas at the refugees. But camp security argued that they were just doing their job.

“Indeed we have rules to follow and sometimes we must say ‘no,’ but it is for [the refugees’] own good, and it is to prevent any overflow,” said the security manager, who did not want his name associated with this story.

La Linière, though, is not unique in reporting sexual assaults. Many refugee camps all over the world have experienced similar problems.

“Why is it like this? I don’t know…You’d think that people would support each other, want to help each other to be OK, to live as decently as you can in these situations and these conditions and maybe help each other get abroad, but there just doesn’t seem to be any of that common humanity,” Galloon said. “I suspect that some of it has resulted from the conditions of the camp they’re living in and the way that they’re being treated.”

You don’t make your country more dangerous just by welcoming refugees, Galloon said. You make your country more dangerous by depriving human beings of safety and stability, of the things that make them human, she added.

The women’s bathroom facilities in the camp can be perilous. “Because the camp is dangerous for women, we give them incontinence pants so they don’t have to use the toilets at night for fear of being raped,” said Sarah Galloon, a volunteer from the United Kingdom.

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Shortly after this camp was opened, a group of volunteers recognized the need for a safe space for women and started the La Linière Women’s Center.

“What we say about the Women’s Center is that it’s a haven for women in a camp that’s quite dangerous for women,” Galloon said. “We do not allow men in here.”

The Women’s Center was open from 11 am to 5 pm every day and offered a variety of services and assistances to women. Its volunteers made sure that there was always food, tea and coffee available and also provided services such as French and English lessons, kids’ activities, massages, hair and makeup services and facials.

“Women need a space to be women, so while the hairdressing and nail painting might seem completely irrelevant, if you have no control over anything else in your life, I think that’s a real blessing,” Harvey said. “It’s a small thing, but it gives people kinship in a way that’s really primal I believe.”

A group of volunteers opened the Women’s Center after noticing a real need for a safe space for women in the camp. No men allowed.

In January, though, some male refugees set fire to the original Women’s Center.

“The men were angry that the women had somewhere to go and that the men are not allowed in here,” Galloon said.

But because it was seen as such a vital resource for women, volunteers crowd-funded and rebuilt it quickly.

Men were granted access to the Women’s Center’s free shop, which was open three days a week and supplied basic necessities. According to Galloon, this helped ease some of the tensions.

And even though there was a Children’s Center open in the camp several days a week, the volunteers in the Women’s Center found themselves trying to provide for the needs of children as well as women.

“For most of these children, there is no structure. You can see in the children’s behavior how unsettled they are. You know, we know that children need routines and boundaries to feel safe. They need love and reciprocity, which is that caring one-to-one relationship with a parent and, for some reason, they don’t get it,” Galloon said. “What I see in these women is that they are very depressed and that obviously rubs off on the children.”

Volunteers in the Women’s Center, like Marjorie Horta from Switzerland and Elly Harvey from the United Kingdom, provide as many services as possible to female refugees and their children. “Every drop counts, and the ocean’s made of drops,” Harvey said. “So we just do what we can, really.”

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La Linière was opened in March 2016 after the government shut down a camp about 25 miles east in Calais that, due to its poor conditions, was known as “the Jungle.”

According to Dr. Kapil, President François Hollande of France has officially welcomed 24,000 refugees into the country during this crisis, which is the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

Much like in the United States, public opinion on the refugee situation is wide ranging and a major cause of political polarization.

As a result, the government provided very little assistance to La Linière and its inhabitants, leaving it up to volunteers to keep the camp running and making things difficult for these volunteers along the way.

Marcel—who’s last name is being withheld upon his request— is a volunteer from Germany who started an organization called Kesha Niya a year ago to provide meals and a place of community for refugees in the camp. He said when he arrived at the camp, he had plans to volunteer for 10 days and leave. Now, a year later, he calls the refugees in the camp his brothers and family.

Marcel and his team from Kesha Niya kitchen, one of the main organizations in the camp providing food since its opening last year, pack up their belongings to leave on March 31. They left the camp because of difficulties with the local government and one of their female volunteers being put in danger.

But he, like everybody, had a breaking point.

“[The government didn’t] push us out, but they make the work, what we do, really hard…The city hall, the police, everyone around tried to make big problems, and we had to work with this everyday,” Marcel said. “And after one year now, we have no power to fight anymore.”

Not only do refugees in France depend on volunteers for aid, they depend specifically on foreign volunteers, as it is a crime of solidarity for French citizens to provide any sort of assistance to refugees.

A Kesha Niya volunteer says goodbye to one of the Kurdish refugees living in the camp. They refer to each other as brothers and family and speak of how much they will miss each other. “’Never give up.’ I learned that from the Kurdish community,” Marcel, who is with Kesha Niya, said. “But the city hall, the police, everyone around tried to make big problems, and we had to work with this everyday. And after one year now, we have no power anymore to fight.”

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According to Harvey and Marjorie Horta, a Swiss volunteer in the Women’s Center, people all over the world tend to have major misconceptions about refugees.

Many people believe that all refugees are poor and simply leave their country in search of wealth, she said.

“The ones who are moving are actually those who’ve accumulated great resources. These people are subject to extreme levels of violence,” Dr. Kapil said. “So we understand that these are people who are very desperate, and they’re not doing it just because they want a better job.”

In order to be smuggled out of their country, refugees have to pay smugglers thousands of dollars.

People don’t just leave home with no idea of where they’re going for no good reason, Dr. Kapil said.

“I talked to a guy who said, ‘my brother was hung from a tree and his feet were chopped off.’ And you kind of think, ‘oh OK, I think I have no idea, really, what I thought before.’ It makes no sense,” Harvey said. “We can’t contextualize it.”

It’s the stories like these that have really changed Harvey over time, she said.

“You know, these are educated people that really just wanted to be at home and they’ve been forced to leave. They don’t want to live like this. I wouldn’t want to live like this. It’s horrible,” Galloon said. “And we really need to change the conditions and make things easier for people.”

“I think we really need to ask ourselves how this situation is happening when we’re supposed to live in civilized countries because this is not a civilized situation,” Galloon said. “I think we need to be aware of that, of how bad it is here for people, not just the women, but the men as well, with no structure, no form of education, nothing to do during the day. It’s no wonder people get angry and bored and just want to find a way to get through. Things need to change.”  

According to Horta and Harvey, people around the world tend to have major misconceptions about refugees, and the vocabulary that surrounds the dialogue about refugees is part of the problem. “A lot of people and organizations are always talking about ‘cases,’ saying like ‘one Syrian case, one Cambodian case,’” Horta said. “I think we don’t pay attention to the vocabulary we use to talk about people, and I think it has a strong impact on the mind.”

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The woman tries to be discrete as she slips off her underwear from under her skirt in the corner of her shelter and replaces it with an adult diaper.

Her cheeks grow hot from embarrassment as she looks behind her to see if anyone in the small room noticed. She knows they did; there is no privacy here.

But she, a grown woman, would rather use the bathroom in her pants like a child than risk being raped in the bathrooms again. She knows she’s still not safe—not as long as she’s here—but she refuses to make it easy. Her chest tightens and she feels physically sick from shame as she lies down on the hard, damp plywood floor and tries desperately to go to sleep.

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