On the edge of northern France’s Grande-Synthe refugee camp, a white van comes to an abrupt halt and three female volunteers leap out clutching tarpaulin sheets. They run into the woods surrounding the camp to avoid detection by the French police and Gendarmerie, a branch of the French armed forces.
For three weeks, the only way that tents, ground sheets and building materials have reached the hundreds of refugees who desperately need them here is if they are concealed or smuggled in by volunteers.
The police and Gendarmerie patrol the entrance to the site, which is situated in a suburb of Dunkirk. Any vehicles entering are searched for restricted items and are only allowed to pass if the driver has a permit. They are checked again on the way out to try to prevent refugees from hitching a lift to Calais – a 30-drive away and the gateway to Britain.
Plans for a new camp
Grande-Synthe’s mayor, Damien Careme, has expressed sympathy for the refugees, but, under orders from the regional government, has placed restrictions on anything that might aid the camp’s expansion.
There are plans to move the refugees from their current site – a flood-prone field next to a busy highway and owned by a property developer who hopes to build luxury flats there – to a camp to be run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF). The international humanitarian organisation has located a 25,000 square metre site, enough space for 500 sturdy tents each housing five people.
If the regional government agrees to lease the site, however, construction of the new camp is expected to take weeks.
Exhausted refugees, who have often spent weeks travelling across land and sea from the Middle East and elsewhere, are worried that they will be forcibly removed from their current site and that access to the new camp will be dependent upon registering with the French authorities. MSF has made clear the conditions it views as essential for the new camp: that refugees must be accommodated on a voluntary basis and be free to come and go as they please.
Waiting for a humanitarian disaster
In any case, the shortage of tents and the camp’s uncertain future has not put off many new arrivals.
What used to be an occasional camping ground for no more than 100 or so refugees has seen numbers sore since September 2015. It is growing by around 70 to 80 people a day.
The now 3,000-strong population includes Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians, Afghans and a small number of Vietnamese, but Kurds from Iraq and Syria remain the largest group. There are more than 300 children, aged between two months and 17 years of age, among them.
Winter has posed new challenges as torrential rain has flooded parts of the camp and caused tents to sink into deep mud, forcing their residents to take shelter in the small wooden shelters from which volunteers distribute clothes, shoes, blankets and sleeping bags.
On January 7, there were hopes for an improvement in conditions as Mayor Careme agreed to let 100 tents in. But then he seemed to change his mind at the last minute. “Now these tents are being stored in vans because they are not allowed into the camp,” says Phoenix, one of the camp’s eight long-term volunteers. From Bristol, a city in southwest England, she has been volunteering here, on and off, for four months.
The mayor will allow pallets on to the site on Monday, January 11, so that paths can be laid and tents lifted out of the mud. Five local authority workers will also assess the broken tents. Phoenix is sceptical. “He [the mayor] has given us a day to improve the camp – one day,” she says, suggesting it is a token response in reaction to recent media attention.
Meanwhile, those without a usable tent of their own have had to try to find others to share with.
“Today a woman came to me weeping with her child, who was silent. She hasn’t had any sleep because her tent is sodden,” says Phoenix but has put her work on hold since coming to Dunkirk.
More tents are not the answer, she adds. “We need to be able to build structures.”
A hundred more people came to the camp today, Phoenix says. “Some were from Calais – they are coming here because of police brutality [in the Calais refugee camp], but after seeing the conditions, many left again.”
Blankets are also running low, says Maddie Harris, a volunteer who arrived three months ago. She spent six weeks working in the Calais camp before moving to Dunkirk.
“People are freezing cold; we’re not getting enough blankets. The generosity and the money are running out,” she says. “There is no warehouse in Dunkirk, so all donations come from Calais – but even Calais is running out of blankets. Private donations are not sustainable. We need big NGOs to provide aid.”
Dreaming of British citizenship
“Welcome to the Jungle,” says Ali, a word more often associated with the Calais camp. Ali is from Iraq’s Kurdistan region and used to be an interpreter for the British and American military. He has also served with the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military forces.
“We can’t sleep when it rains,” he says, pointing to a mattress half-covered in mud. “The sleeping bag is not armour. It doesn’t rain for one or two minutes, it rains all night.”
The 27-year-old flicks through photos on his phone that show him posing beside his Western military colleagues. “I have documents to prove that I worked with the British army,” he says. “That’s why lots of Kurdish people want to go to England – because we’ve worked with their soldiers and for their companies.”
Like many other refugees – both in Dunkirk and Calais – Ali has relatives in Britain. His brother lives in Birmingham.
“I hope for citizenship. My dream is to say that I’m from the UK,” he says. He sounds confident but worry lines prematurely mark his face.
The Dunkirk spirit
The camp is small and takes just 10 minutes to walk around, even in ankle-deep mud. And, despite the harsh circumstances, the atmosphere is friendly.
Volunteers hand out steaming rice, vegetarian curry and salad on plastic plates from a truck, while a man of around 40 sings a traditional Kurdish song nearby. Three children play hide-and-seek by a skip and shriek with laughter.
But this spirit can do little to alter the fact that the camp is close to an outbreak of disease.
“There are rats everywhere, you can see the footprints in the mud,” says Simon, a British volunteer. “And I recently put up a tent next to human excrement.”
There are 30 toilets for 3,000 people. That’s a shortfall of 120 according to widely recognised humanitarian standards that recommend one for every 20 people.
There are only eight taps on site and the showers were not working for three months, says Maddie, as she fields questions from refugees while giving a small boy a piggy-back.
“They opened the showers for the first time yesterday and the water was cold,” she adds.
Chest infections are common and people have started to cough up blood. While administering flu vaccines over the past few days, humanitarian organisation Hands International found that 96 of the 100 people it vaccinated had scabies; a highly infectious skin condition.
‘This is not a human place’
Ameer is on the look out for gas. It has run out in the camp and, according to volunteers, in the nearby shops. Fortunately, a supermarket, a short drive away, has a bulk order of 400 canisters due soon. Ameer sometimes has the money to buy a canister himself, but, at around $30 each, this is a price few refugees can afford.
Ameer is from Mosul, an Iraqi city currently under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. He worked for a British security firm there as a bodyguard.
He fled with his wife and three young children six months ago, but they are still in Turkey. It was too dangerous to take his family with him to Europe, Ameer explains.
The days are long in the camp, he says, so he fills his time by smoking shisha, cooking, and attempting to cross the Channel to Britain, in the hope that his family will join him there.
Mustafa is trying to clean his muddy tent with tissues. He is a Bidoon from Kuwait, meaning that he is stateless. He has no birth certificate or passport, and was not able to go to school, access healthcare or work. He cannot read and his 13-year-old brother Ahmed has also never been to school. Mustafa and Ahmed have been in Dunkirk for four months now, but Mustafa says life in the camp is impossible. He and Ahmed want to reach the UK, he says assuredly, “because it is safe”.
A barber by trade, Sarbaz, 26, is from Sulaymaniyah, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. He is unusual among the camp’s residents because he has already been to Britain. He lived in Manchester between 2008 and 2012 and was given temporary permission to work, as a barber, while his asylum case was processed. He hoped for a better life because “life in Kurdistan is really hard”, but his claim was rejected and the organisation Refugee Action helped him to voluntarily return to his country.
Three years later, Sarbaz left his home for a second time. His girlfriend’s family refused to give him permission to marry her because they said he had become “westernised” while in England. When her family threatened to kill him, the two of them fled together. Sarbaz’s brother helped them escape and came with them. “If her family finds me and my girlfriend, they will kill us both,” says Sarbaz.
He is trying to reach the UK, he explains, because the British authorities have already registered and fingerprinted him, and he hopes that having been there before will help all three with their asylum cases.
“This place is really b*******, trust me,” he laughs. “We live here but it is not a human place.”
Simon agrees. “People are being denied their basic human right to shelter,” he says, adding: “It cannot be legal.”
And Maddie believes that the responsibility for the people living here should not just lie with the French authorities, but also with the British government. “Someone needs to come and notice that there are people living here,” she says as she walks past the camp toilets. People hurry past with hands or scarves covering their noses. “We can shout and scream as loud as we want, but there are vital things that we need and we’re not allowed them.”