The Forgotten Asylum Seekers of Calais and Dunkirk

by | Aug 15, 2018

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About Emilie McDonnell

Emilie McDonnell is the UK Advocacy and Communications Coordinator with Human Rights Watch. She is a former OxHRH Researcher and completed her DPhil in Law at Oxford University as the 2016 Tasmanian Rhodes Scholar.


Emilie McDonnell, “The Forgotten Asylum Seekers of Calais and Dunkirk” (OxHRH Blog, 15 August 2018), <> [date of access].

Since the closure of the ‘Jungle’ in October 2016, the asylum seekers and refugees that remain in Calais, Dunkirk and other areas along the Northern French coast in desperate and inhumane conditions appear to have been forgotten, no longer attracting our attention. In June 2018, I volunteered in Calais and Dunkirk with Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity where we partnered with Care4Calais to distribute food, water and essential items to those living there.

Despite the Jungle being closed over 2 years ago, around 1,000 asylum seekers and refugees still live in informal refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk, without adequate shelter or proper access to drinking water, showers or toilets. They live in tents in the woods or under bridges, bathing in polluted rivers and lighting fires to keep warm.

Those I spoke to reported violence, harassment and abuse by the French police, including beatings, destruction of mobile phones, tents and sleeping bags being burnt or urinated on, as well as a new tactic where the police take just one shoe to prevent them running away.

Despite this dismantlement campaign, asylum seekers continue to arrive. Some are attempting to reach the UK, while others are unsure of their next steps; living a life of limbo. One man had told the French authorities that he wished to apply for asylum in France but was told to go to the informal Kurdish camp and wait until further notice. Some have returned to the area after being transferred back to the first country they reached in the EU pursuant to the Dublin Regulation, or even after being deported back to their state of origin; risking the arduous journey again.

The asylum seekers living in the camps are from all over the world, including Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, and include men, women, and children. Many of the children are unaccompanied young males, having taken the journey to France alone. The youngest asylum seeker I met was a 20 month-old Kurdish girl, living in the woods with her mother and father. Just days after I met this family, the camp where they were living was cleared by the French authorities and 336 people were transferred by bus to French accommodation centres.

As stated by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants:

“Migrants, regardless of their status, are entitled to human rights without discrimination, including access to adequate housing, education, healthcare, water and sanitation as well as access to justice and remedies. By depriving them of their rights or making access increasingly difficult, France is violating its international human rights obligations.”

Instead, France has been depriving them of their rights, through neglect, police violence, and attempts to criminalise aid workers and ban food distributions. At every aid distribution we carried out, the police turned up and watched us in their vehicles, in an attempt to intimidate and deter. The behaviour of the French police and inaction by the French government has faced strong criticism from Human Rights Watch and several UN Special Rapporteur’s have urged the French government to provide access to safe drinking water and sanitation along the Northern French coast.

The UK also bears responsibility. Notably, the border wall at Calais is funded by UK money and the UK operates its border control from the French side. It is at least arguable that these juxtaposed border controls and UK funding amounts to the UK exercising some control over the territory and people there, such that it owes protection obligations to the asylum seekers in Calais and Dunkirk. Recently, the UK pledged an additional £44.5 million for extra security measures in France and pursuant to the new treaty, has agreed to accelerate asylum procedures to provide a legal route to Britain, including for those seeking to rejoin family in the UK and unaccompanied minors.

The ongoing situation in Calais and Dunkirk starkly highlights the need for cooperation and responsibility sharing; not to deter migrants, but to allow them to access asylum procedures and safe and legal routes. The asylum seekers and refugees that remain may be out of sight, but they will not be forgotten. They deserve our humanity and compassion.

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