‘The ‘politics of exhaustion’, the continual denial of living space, serves to deny refugees’ physical and psychological wellbeing. In this piece, Frances Timberlake compares three recent temporary living spaces for refugees in Grande Synthe, Northern France. It analyses these temporary spaces based on the experiences of women who live(d) in them and reflects on ownership and agency as determinants of belonging, as well as on the strength of refugee-refugee solidarity in defending the right to a ‘home’. By exploring the impact of different living spaces on experiences of authority, belonging and resistance among women refugees in the formal and informal shelter structures around Grande Synthe, this article contributes to the Refugee Hosts community of conversation, which aims to disrupt dominant humanitarian narratives and create a better understanding of refugee communities’ experiences and their perceptions of, and resistance to, diverse encounters. This article can be read as part of our Representations of Displacement series.
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This blog was posted on 24th April 2019
Home-making and home-taking: living spaces for women refugees in Grande Synthe
By Frances Timberlake
In the 1990s, refugees fleeing the war in Kosovo established small settlements in Grande Synthe, a suburb on the fringes of Dunkirk. Following later conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan it has become a ‘hotspot’ for refugees mainly from the Middle East, hoping to reach the UK. The arrival and presence of people remained stable until 2015, when an unprecedented rise in numbers led to the building of the official ‘humanitarian’ La Liniere camp in 2016. Since the destruction of this camp a year later, the transit population has moved between countless different informal sites around the Dunkirk area. People are regularly evicted from these sites by French police, who destroy tents and other personal belongings before moving people on.
The denial of living space, or “politics of exhaustion,” is a perpetual block to both physical and psychological stability. Particularly for the women here, who play an important role in home-making, sustained home displacement can deny agency. However, repetitive displacement also engenders unique forms of community and home-making among those who bear the brunt of it. This article explores the impact of different living spaces on experiences of authority, belonging and resistance among women refugees in the formal and informal shelter structures around Grande Synthe.
In Grande Synthe, Jungles have sprung up in numerous different locations over the years. The mostly Kurdish refugee population install their volunteer-distributed tents and tarpaulins – when there are enough to go around – and begin to construct temporary homes. But the police soon follow, armed with tear gas, guns and a mandate to remove people and remnants of their presence. The dirty, unsanitary and unsafe outdoor conditions in the Jungle are sources of discomfort and danger for everyone, not just women.
The space also, however, allows for a different sense of ownership to that seen in other living sites. With no oversight or management of the area, people can choose where they set up their tent and how they create their living space – at least temporarily. The more sociable women build large fireplaces for cooking, the more mischievous hang French flags to appease the police. Community spaces spring up quickly. Barbers, cafés, makeshift showers and even a small school, constructed in the short spaces between evictions in full knowledge that they could be destroyed within a week, are testimony to a strong determination to build what is necessary for social living.
Indeed, the attempts of police and authorities to ‘manage’ the Jungle through clearances is often met with significant resistance here, in a space where people uphold their right to come and go. In August 2018, on the morning of one planned eviction, the roughly 40 women of the Grande Synthe Jungle organised a large protest against the clearance of their spaces. They blocked the entrance road to the site – the first time this has happened – shouting ‘no eviction!’ to the armed police officers. The women were not protesting simply against the conditions they were living in but against the denial of their right to occupy a space, to choose their movements, to make a temporary home for their families. It was a powerful assertion of solidarity and of people’s right to agency in their own living space.
Local municipality shelter
An alternative proposed to the repetitive dismantling and reappearance of Jungles was the use of a local gymnasium, opened to refugees for the 2017-18 winter period by the Mayor of Grande Synthe. Without exception, the women I have spoken with said they felt safer here, due to being sheltered in a hall separate from single men, and to the close community it created with other refugees. They identified this community as their biggest source of both information and support.
The gymnasium represented an interesting negotiation of space ownership, between those who lived there and the Mayor’s office who provided and managed it. This was most visible among the women and families who, unlike the single men, were able to partition their own floor spots and, when inviting others to sit down with them for tea, would often refer to their space as malm, ‘my home’ in Kurdish Sorani.
However, the overall structure of the gymnasium was generally referred to as ‘camp’ by those in it and with no communal area available, the two sleeping halls became at once people’s homes and spaces for administration and distribution with rules set by the Mayor’s office.
When new arrivals began to increase and space became more limited, one single woman and her son found that their spot had been reassigned when they returned after one night in a police station, a harsh reminder of their lack of agency. The space they had made theirs in fact belonged to a higher authority. Rather than lose the floor space they had temporarily been able to call ‘home’, they decided to leave the centre in defiance.
Upon the sudden closure of the gymnasium by the Mayor’s Office one week later, no one protested the loss of a space that had belonged to someone else to begin with.
State accommodation centres
A positive development in the last year has been the increase of State accommodation centres across Northern France. Although conditions vary, in general those who secure a space there have access to basic cooking and hygiene facilities. Many women say they feel empowered by the ability to cook for their families again, which made them feel more stable.
The sense of collective ownership, however, is minimal. The centres are strictly managed and restrictions on visitors, noise and even washing days exist. People are collected from the Jungle sites to go to the centres on buses, but are rarely told where they are being taken or are left without a space at the last minute. Centres are often far from the coastline, which not only ignores people’s main purpose in being in the area – to pass to the UK – but can lead to enforced isolation from the support and access to information that community provides. Those that are sent far away often make their way back to the Jungle from where the cycle of settlement and displacement begins again.
Whilst these centres offer the most dignified and sustainable accommodation solution seen so far, the State has been slow to recognise the importance of a sense of home and belonging, or the need for agency and community for the survival of people on the move. Individual accommodation centres have now begun to implement changes to better meet refugees’ real needs, but progress has been slow.
A future for refugee reception
What future, then, for refugee reception? How can the experiences of Grande Synthe be built on to envisage a sustainable response to welcoming refugees on the French coastline? Although the recent winter has been the first in which all family units have been sheltered indoors, up to 600 single men remain outside, with tents as their only form of shelter – until the police remove them. Temporary shelters have only perpetuated the repetitive placement-displacement cycle.
In response to a growing disillusion with authorities’ efforts to address this, local associations in Grande Synthe have begun work on a housing project aiming to create a permanent shelter for people in transit, or for those who need a stable resting place before embarking on the decision of where to re-install their lives. Many of those in northern France are dublinés: rejected by their first European country of choice but unable to return to their home country, they are stuck in the legal and physical limbo created by the Dublin accords.
The housing project hopes to create a jointly owned space, managed, sustained and occupied by refugees and non-refugees working on the project alike. Although alone it could not fulfil the shelter needs of all those in the Grande Synthe area, it hopes to provide a replicable model for a region where 30 years of transit refugee populations have worn down local people’s ideas for, and tolerance of, reception.
Davies, D. (2019) Speculative Borders: China Miéville’s The City & the City
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) Refugee-Refugee Relationality: Hospitality and ‘Being With’ Refugees
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Representation of Displacement Series Introduction: Disrupting Humanitarian Narratives?
Thieme, T. (2018) World Refugee Day – DIY Humanitarianism in Paris
Wafai, J. (2018) Al-Mustaqbal in the Space of Refuge
Weatherhead, K. (2017) Thinking Through the Concept of ‘Welcoming’
Featured image: A Kurdish family moves back to the Jungle. Grande Synthe, Autumn 2017. Photo credit: Refugee Women’s Centre.