Dunkirk, France – The morning sun breaks over the high-roofed farm buildings, setting the tea tent into a cold shade below. It is 10am in Liniere, the refugee camp in the northern French city of Dunkirk, but no one is awake yet.
Most women, children and men have spent the night trying to find a passage out of France, while others slept fretfully with images of Iraq teasing their dreams. Without work, there is little except the old habits of citizenship to hurry them out of the wooden huts.
Dilara*, a 27-year-old Kurdish mother, walks down the camp’s main street towards a former Red Cross tent; a sign with the word “school” hangs on the outside. She and three other women, all fleeing the war and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group’s grip on northern Iraq, are learning to teach the 300 children living at the camp.
Their work offers an escape from thoughts of the lorries constantly rolling towards their preferred destination: England.
“I would like to be a teacher in England,” says Dilara, gripping a mini whiteboard covered in arithmetic. For her, teaching in the camp is “work experience” for when she can do the job properly.
“In the school, I am happier. I do not think about anything,” she adds. “When I stay at home all day I am thinking and thinking.”
Dilara, along with three other Kurdish women – Nasreen, Shepol and Peyam – began helping as teaching assistants in January, when the school was still an old scout tent at the Basroch camp three kilometres into town. Hidden in a muddy copse of trees opposite the tidy lawns of a housing estate, the litter-riven site had attracted such criticism that the mayor of Grande-Synthe, one of Dunkirk’s districts, opened the Liniere camp in late February .
Anyone can enter
Three months on, newcomers were met with heated wooden huts perched on gravel, a laundry, food trailer, shower blocks – and the school, which recently upgraded from the Red Cross tent to tidy wooden buildings.
The vast majority of those at the camp are from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. A sense of order feels palpable here, unlike at the “Jungle” settlement in Calais , further up the coast, where residents come from all over Africa and the Middle East. While the Jungle feels more like a real township, Liniere is something else, and its problems are just becoming clear.
One issue is that the site built to take in Kurdish families from Calais – where, according to volunteers and Kurdish refugees, ethnic differences had begun to smoulder – is now well-enough established to give smugglers a stable base from which to operate, taking those who want to reach the UK, where many say they have relatives waiting for them.
Alarmed, the French government has begun to re-take control of the camp from the grassroots volunteer group, Utopia 56, via the more formally equipped aid organisation AFEJI, which currently acts as joint camp manager . AFEJI told Al Jazeera that it is working more closely with the French state because of the increase in smuggling.
The lack of registration at the camp causes particular concern. There are two ways into the camp: the formal entrance, which has six gendarmes checking passports; and the back entrance, which involves a walk down the central reservation of a motorway and a hop over a barrier.
Virtually anyone can enter.
There is little incentive to utilise the formal check-in system because, under the Dublin Convention (PDF) , registering as a refugee in France will make the chances of asylum in England far less likely. The result is a situation in which no one quite knows anyone else and rumours about smugglers and other criminal assaults circulate freely, adding to the sense of anxiety.
Still, the relative safety of the school enabled its co-founders, Ginny Parry and Rory Fox, to find several of their first Kurdish teachers.
“Dilara and the others have helped us understand what Kurdish school was like,” explains Parry.
“So the [women] have been useful in saying, ‘Yes, this is what they are used to in Kurdistan; they need this.’ And with them being [Kurdish] promoters of the school in the community, it stops some of the suspicions [felt towards volunteers].”
Having Kurdish women teaching at the school has provided some sense of normality for all those involved.
The teaching assistants calm children who are upset, deliver a sharp word, explain complex geometry and have even taught the English teachers how to count to 20 and say “divide” and “multiply” in the children’s own tongue. In return, the Kurdish teachers improve their English skills and are taught various teaching techniques.
“Here the children make me smile,” says Dilara. “I am safe here. I can make my English better.”
But the camp’s growing instability is increasingly being felt inside the school as smugglers move young people out.
Fox recalls a young Kurdish woman named Sairan who arrived at the school when she was 15. She had travelled from Erbil across much of Europe and was en route to her father in London.
Fox, who has previously been a headteacher at secondary schools in the UK, says Sairan seemed committed to her studies.
But just after being told she could sit her maths GCSE exams at the British School in Paris, Sairan disappeared. Those at the camp say she gave up waiting for legal help and got on a lorry to London.
“She’s the kind of kid who would have come out with [the highest marks]. She was very bright,” says Fox. “What we’ve got to remember is that nobody wants to stay in the camp, and they’re only in the camp in order to get out of the camp.
“Sairan’s opportunity came along, and she got out.”
As many of the camp’s 1,200 residents , including its pupils, continue to disappear, the school has had a further setback. According to AFEJI, the French government wants the “education facility”, as AFEJI calls the school tent, to cease operations and for the children to attend state schools in Dunkirk from September.
The teachers say that they would welcome the plan if parents wouldn’t suspect it was a way to keep them in France, rather than clearing their route to England.
Incentives to keep moving
Yet, the odds of asylum in the UK are stacked against the refugees. The Dublin Convention states that the refugees should seek asylum in the first “safe country” they reach. If they continue their journey, they will be sent back to that country.
Furthermore, not all of Iraq is considered dangerous, so refugees may eventually be returned to cities such as Erbil.
There are already 26,492 people who have been waiting at least six months in the UK to have their case resolved, according to the government’s immigration statistics released this month.
One human rights lawyer spoke anonymously to Al Jazeera, saying that with no legal structure in Dunkirk, “it’s all lawyers doing pro bono work” to help the refugees.
Still, because little legal help is available to them in France and they can kick-start their asylum claims by landing on English soil, refugees are incentivised to continue catching lorries out of France.
“People are risking their lives to get to England even though they don’t have solid asylum claims, so they are almost definitely going to be told to leave again,” the lawyer says.
In the camp, women such as Dilara can help anchor the girls in school. In the best scenario, according to Fox, there is a double-generation attendance with mothers coming to teach and daughters coming to learn.
“[They] continue the lesson by arguing about the problem at home,” says Fox. Girls sometimes return with their parent the next day still discussing a particular point.
While the school is appealing to the refugees as a small patch of England in France, it is no real substitute for those refugees determined to join their families on the other side of the channel.
For those like Dilara, the camp and the attempt at normality it offers are only a stepping stone until they reach London.
As she closes the school for the day, Parry reflects on what this means for the camp.
“E verybody here has an endgame,” she says.
*Names of the refugees have been changed for their protection.
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