Volunteers in the Calais Jungle have been accused of sexually exploiting refugees and even child migrants.
The Independent has discovered a serious row has broken out among some unpaid charity workers at the camp in northern France, with some believing forging sexual relationships with adult refugees is natural in such circumstances, while others say it breaches all usual codes of conduct.
One man who raised the alarm was later subjected to a barrage of online abuse.
After being told of the allegations, UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, called for charities in Calais to impose “zero tolerance” policies on any exploitation to help maintain the “integrity” of volunteer work.
Charity leaders working in the area have confirmed there is a serious problem, with worries about predatory behaviour by both male and female volunteers. But they say it is difficult to control due to the absence of universal humanitarian standards in the Jungle, meaning there are no official aid organisations on the ground and no controls over who can enter to volunteer.
Clare Mosely, founder of Care4Calais, one of the biggest charities working there, which has a zero tolerance policy regarding relationships with refugees, said: “At the end of the day it isn’t recognised as an official refugee camp, it’s an illegal settlement. So we’ve got no way of forcing anyone to leave. That is the difficulty.”
The issue came to light after a bitter online discussion between volunteers that was later deleted after concerns were raised that it would become a scandal if it were seen by journalists. The Independent saved a copy before it was removed.
The exchanges were started by a male volunteer on a Facebook group for Jungle workers called Calais People to People Solidarity, which has more than 36,000 members. The Independent has decided not to publish his name.
The man wrote: “I have heard of boys, believed to be under the age of consent, having sex with volunteers. I have heard stories of men using the prostitutes in the Jungle too.
“I have heard of volunteers having sex with multiple partners in one day, only to carry on in the same vein the following day. And I know also, that I’m only hearing a small part of a wider scale of abuse.”
The volunteer went on to say these sexual encounters were damaging for refugees, who are “in an entirely unequal position of power” and “entirely dependent on the aid that is provided by volunteers”.
“Sex from a person who is in a position of power or influence, in such a one-sided affair, especially where it is perceived that aid or better aid can be gained from it, that it is, and can be defined as sexual abuse,” he said.
He cited the code of conduct used by UNHCR, which states that sexual relationships between aid staff and beneficiaries are “strongly discouraged” due to “unequal power relationships”.
The man added that the majority of cases in question involved female volunteers and male refugees – which he claimed risked the objectification of women volunteering in the camp.
He wrote: “Female volunteers having sex enforces the view (that many have) that volunteers are here for sex. This impression objectifies women in the camp and increases the risks.”
His comments prompted accusations of sexism and misogyny from female members of the group. One commented on the post: “I find this attitude incredibly patronising and paternalistic with added sexism and racism.
“There is a serious point in here among all the moralistic bullshit but I find it very off-putting. I find the assertion that women choosing to have sex encourages rape quite frankly disturbing.”
But others agreed with him and acknowledged that volunteer-refugee relationships were a serious issue in the camp that should not be “covered up”.
One commenter wrote: “I don’t think we should be covering this up, just that we should be dealing with it as organisations looking to impress upon individuals the gravity of the situation and the power imbalance of volunteer-refugee relationships. It’s a serious issue, and must be dealt with seriously.”
Another commented: “Sweeping this issue under the carpet will not make it go away. We were all in uncharted territory the first time we arrived in the camp and so this was bound to happen to a lesser or greater extent.”
Others meanwhile called for the group’s admin to remove the thread over fears a “news outlet would gain access to it”.
The post was deleted within several hours of it being posted, but it has since emerged that the issue is well known among charities working in the area.
Speaking to The Independent, Ms Mosely told how one male volunteer was recently reported for inappropriate behaviour with female refugees, but the charity leaders had no power to expel him from the camp.
She said: “He initially worked with another charity called Auberge des Migrants. But when he was reported for inappropriate behaviour with female refugees they told him to leave.
“He then came here for a day and they phoned us up and warned us. So we told him to leave, but then he went to the camp on his own and we had no power to force him out.
“Luckily a couple of our male volunteers went and spoke to him and persuaded him to leave. So he’s gone now. But it’s extremely difficult for us to control. A fifth of the volunteers are here independent of any organisation.”
Maya Konforti, who volunteers for Auberge des Migrants, told The Independent about another case in which a British female volunteer had built up a “bad reputation” in the camp by sleeping with multiple refugees.
Ms Konforti said: “I know one British woman who had a very bad reputation in the Jungle. If she had been volunteering with Auberge she would be thrown out, but she did it on her own, she was here independently.
“She found the right refugee and now she’s with him. That’s what I hear. She’s back in the UK and lives with a refugee.”
Both Care4Calais and Auberge des Migrants have stringent rules in their codes of conduct that explicitly condemn “potentially exploitative” sexual relationships between volunteers and refugees.
The codes of conduct used by both charities state: “Any pattern of potentially exploitative sexual activity between associates and adult beneficiaries will not be condoned, on the basis of recognising the fundamental vulnerability of residents in refugee camps and the possibility of exploitative behaviour.
“We recognise that associates are in a position of trust, which can create an imbalance of power and can lead to beneficiaries being put at risk of further harm.”
But Ms Konforti said the rules are impossible to enforce throughout the camp: “Calais is not a proper refugee camp where the entrance and exits are regulated.
“This is what makes the camp interesting and provides lots of opportunities for refugees and volunteers to meet, but the lack of regulation can lead to bad things as well.
“When you have volunteers and refugees in this environment, it’s going to happen. There will be people who will have sexual relationships with refugees.
“We can’t say it’s damaging for all refugees to have a sexual relationship with a volunteer, but we have strict rules to prevent this kind of thing happening because we know the risks. The problem is the independent volunteers who no one is watching out for.”
In response to the reports of sexual exploitation in the Jungle, UNHCR said such reports must be “promptly addressed” and called for the Jungle to be replaced with more acceptable conditions.
A spokesperson told The Independent: “UNHCR has zero tolerance for such behaviour as the abuse or exploitation of refugees, and that such reports and allegations should be promptly addressed –first and foremost – by the French authorities.
“Volunteers are doing important work for refugees and migrants in Calais and it is essential that the integrity of that work is guarded. This camp should be replaced as soon as possible with more acceptable reception conditions.”
International aid organisation Save the Children expressed concern at the lack of monitoring in Calais following the accusations. Ruairidh Valler, the charity’s international media manager, said: “The policing in refugee camps is generally down to the state or UNHCR on the ground. But in the case of Calais, in the informal, irregular setting, this all gets more difficult.
“Nobody wants to criticise smaller NGOs that are doing their best and trying to do something really wonderful. But obviously with that comes the added risk of things going wrong. There’s lack of monitoring.
“It all stems from the fact that the Jungle has been this ignored black hole in one of the largest economies on the planet.”
Thom Davies, a human geographer from the University of Warwick and one of the authors of an academic study of the camp, said the alleged sexual exploitation was a symptom of the fact that the Jungle is not being recognised as an official refugee camp by the authorities.
Mr Davies said: “This issue exposes quite how exceptional the Calais camp and other informal camps in Europe are. In my research we compared the Jungle with the minimum standards for a regular refugee camp under the Sphere Project (an umbrella group for a wide range of humanitarian agencies) and UNHCR – and it just doesn’t match up.
“The fact that the Calais camp is not considered an official camp either by the UN or the French state has led to these issues.”