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.
When the world turns dark
In the bleak midwinter
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.