It’s Wednesday morning and Françoise Lavoisier is getting ready to deliver clothes, blankets and other supplies to a refugee camp in her town of Grande-Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk in northern France.
In the past two months, hundreds upon hundreds of migrants, mostly Kurds from Iraq, have poured into this marsh wooded area.
“In January 2015 there were between 60 and 100 people in the camp. And that number climbed to some 2,500 or 3,000. So you have to adapt,” Françoise, a volunteer at the SALAM association, told Reporter.
The area was completely unprepared to handle such an influx, and has since seen an increase in police and security forces at the camp’s entrance. Especially as human traffickers are said to have infiltrated the camp.
Inside the camp, tents surrounded by mud and rubbish are an all too common sight — images that have given it the nickname “Camp of Shame”.
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One Kurdish refugee said he came here to flee the Islamist militant group calling itself Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS) but couldn’t believe his eyes when he arrived: “You cannot imagine in Europe, in the 21st century, a place like that. You cannot see a place like that in the whole world.”
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It’s thanks to the volunteers and NGOs who sounded the alarm on the squalid conditions here that some help arrived for these refugees who are hoping to get to Britain.
From handing out clothes to food and hygiene products, these volunteers say they try to bring some form of dignity to those in the camp.
“What we are doing, the state should be doing. They’re relying on us. It’s not up to us, to the town, to be investing I don’t know how many millions… We’re replacing the state,” said SALAM’s volunteer Françoise.
Gunshots, measles and scabies
One British group of volunteers called Aid Box Convoy regularly brings into the camp some supplies from the UK. Some items have to be smuggled in yet the material is nothing more than equipment to build more solid tents and shelters — something the authorities don’t want for fear that the camp will become a permanent one.
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Late January, four migrants were lightly injured when a fight erupted in the camp and gunshots were fired. French media attributed the fight to rivalry and religion tensions between human smuggling gangs.
Caught in shoot-outs, smuggling in building material, pitching tents in rain: for these volunteers, is it worth the risk?
Marcus Wells is a shop-owner from Bristol. He first came in December and has been back several times to offer his help: “A lot of these groups, it’s probably 80 percent young men. When Daesh (ISIL) take over an area, the young boys any age of 12 upwards, they have a choice: they either fight for Daesh or otherwise they’ll be killed. So their parents say, ‘just go, just get out of here’. I was talking to someone yesterday, fifteen years old, and his younger brother was fourteen. And I said, what did your mother say? They said their mother said, go, go. That’s why the mobile phones, they’re all standing around charging their mobiles because they want to talk to their mum, you know?”
While volunteers have been generous in both physical and moral support, poor health and sanitary issues have brought in key NGOs such as Médecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without borders). Over the past three weeks, more portable toilets have been brought in. There are now 60 toilets and 48 showers — better, but still not enough for the more than 2,500 refugees in the camp.
And doctors and nurses warn there are sicknesses here they haven’t seen in France for a long time.
“The main motives for consultations we have here in the clinic are linked to the living conditions here,” said Samuel Hanryon of Médecins Sans Frontières. “We see ear, nose and throat diseases, colds, respiratory infections. We also have many cases of scabies, which reflect the miserable sanitary conditions in which these people live.”
“For us, what is very worrisome since last week is that we’ve had cases of measles, in Calais as well as Grande-Synthe. So we’re going to have to launch a vaccination campaign, because measles is an extremely contagious disease which can have deadly complications in some cases,” he said.
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But a solution to these dire conditions is underway.
Not far from the current camp, a new one is being built. Some 500 heated tents, electricity, showers and sanitary facilities as well as kitchen and living areas will welcome the refugees. And, especially, the new camp will be dry.
Medecins sans Frontières is paying 2 million euros and the city community 500,000. For now little funding is coming from the state or from Europe.
“It’s frustrating for us, as an international NGO used to working abroad in areas of conflicts, humanitarian catastrophes, epidemics, that we’re now building a refugee camp for 2,500 people in France, which is one of the richest countries in the world… It seems a bit surreal,” said Samuel Hanryon.
To move or not to move
Damien Carême is the mayor of Grande Synthe. He has lobbied hard for this new camp and says he hopes the state and Europe will eventually offer more help. He also says he doesn’t want to repeat the same mistakes as Calais, where refugees and migrants were moved under force and camps bulldozed.
“The move of the camp will be done without the police’s intervention,” he said. “I don’t want to be putting people into police trucks to take them somewhere, because it’s not a police operation, this moving of the camp. We’re not dismantling it, we’re moving it.”
“We need to make them understand, the NGOs, the associations who work here, that they will need to move because the living conditions will be better there. And also because I cannot have two camps in my town. I’m building a camp for all of these people. There won’t be a choice to make between the two upon arriving. But then I’ll order the evacuation of the first camp. And I’ll order its dismantling even if there are still people there. I think we’ll manage to make them understand that it’s in their interest, it’s in the humanitarian interest, in everyone’s interest really to move over to the other side.”
But many refugees are worried about moving to the new camp. Hawree has been here for two months. He has tried 17 times to get to the UK by hiding in trucks at night heading for the English Channel. He is scared that the new camp will have more police, more cameras and less freedom.
“From 7 at night to 8 in the morning, the new camp will be closed. The police forbids us to go out but we will want to go out at night to try again to get to the other side (to Britain). We didn’t come here to stay in the camp,” he said.
While we spoke to Hawree, one of his friends announced the good news: someone made it to the other side and even reached London. A glimmer of hope for those still here. A potential headache for others.