Sunday

15th Dec 2019

Women and child refugees face abuse in French camp

  • Around 100 children are thought to be living in La Liniere camp, some of them are infants. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Recent reports of rape at a refugee camp in north-eastern France is causing alarm among volunteers. A Belgian MEP wants the issue debated in the European Parliament.

La Liniere opened last March as a humanitarian camp in Grande-Synthe, in the outskirts of Dunkirk, to provide refugees living in the rough some basic housing. But many of the wooden shelters now stand empty following efforts by the local authorities to shut it down.

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Surrounded by a major road, railway lines and abandoned industrial warehouses, La Liniere offers a bleak setting to its estimated 400 residents, who seek a future in the UK.

Among them are women and children said to be trading sex for food or other services from smugglers, according to anonymous testimonies gathered by the Observer newspaper earlier this month.

Sarah Verhofstadt, a volunteer at the Belgian-based NGO VZW Humain, confirmed to this website on Wednesday (22 February) that some women at the camp are "wearing adult diapers because they are afraid to go to the toilets at night."

Fate of the vulnerables

The fate of the vulnerables at the camp are part of a broader campaign by Belgian liberal MEP Hilde Vautmans to get the EU to come up with a plan to protect migrant children throughout Europe.

"We can't accept that children sleep in the streets and pushed back into the hands of smugglers," said Vautmans.

Vautmans is hoping to get it debated at the next EU parliament plenary session. The European Commission had last May announced it would present a strategy on protecting children.

But Vautmans says they are still waiting for the commission to produce something. She is now piling on pressure for an EU-level action plan to help find kids who are missing and preventing others from meeting a similar fate.

"If you look at the situation now, it is really horrible. And this is 2017," she said.

Europol, the EU police agency, early last year announced at least 10,000 migrant children have gone missing. Some are thought to have absconded, others victims of sex trafficking or child labour.

"It is almost a symbolic figure the 10,000, really to ring an alarm," said Delphine Moralis, secretary-general of Missing Children Europe.

Moralis said the Europol estimate was conservative and that the lack of protection for children throughout many EU states is creating a space for criminals to more easily exploit them.

Lengthy administrative procedures, poor reception conditions, and fear of being detained and returned to home countries are among the contributing factors behind their disappearance.

The camp

One 42-year-old Syrian from Aleppo at the camp told this website that Kurdish mafia groups were charging people hundreds of euros for the right to stay in a wooden shelter. He claimed prostitutes were being kept in one of the shelters.

When asked about the rape allegations, he said "any man who brings his wife to this place doesn't care about her".

Others say they feel relatively secure in the camp. Twin teenage girls from Iraq who have been staying at the camp for the past three months said they haven't encountered any abuse. But the two are also traveling with male relatives.

Another 35-year old from Iran, whose husband is suspected of being a smuggler, made similar comments. "I have no problem here. I'm not afraid to go to the toilet or of anyone," she said.

But Ashkan, a fellow camp resident from Iran, shed doubt on her testimony because her husband is a suspected smuggler.

Smugglers

La Liniere was launched by Damien Careme, the Green mayor of Grande-Synthe, along with Medecins sans Frontieres. The French state agreed to fund it.

When EUobserver first visited La Liniere last July, on a visit to Calais, there were no police. Careme told reporters at the time they were not needed.

"We manage this camp, we are here 24/7 to make sure smugglers don't come here," he said.

Smugglers were drawn to the region given the thousands living at the ad hoc refugee camp in Calais, now closed, some 20km away. From August 2015 to May last year, authorities in the region had dismantled some two dozen networks.

By October the same year, plans were announced by the Dunkirk sub-prefecture that no new arrivals would be admitted to La Liniere. Grande-Synthe city council did not object but people are still arriving.

A number of Afghans at the site including 18-year-old Qais Yatoubi said he had only arrived two months ago.

Halmat Mustafa Rosool, a 30-year old from Kurdistan, said he arrived "two days ago".

French migrant camps to get upgrade

A new camp with heated tents will be built near Dunkirk as house containers are made available in Calais, where thousands of migrants headed for the UK are stranded.

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