On Monday night, a huge fire ripped through the Grand-Synthe refugee camp outside the northern French city of Dunkirk. The fire destroyed 80 per cent of the camp, including community spaces, kitchens, the women’s and children’s centres and the wooden shelters that housed more than 1,500 migrants. “There is nothing left but a heap of ashes,” said Michel Lalande, prefect of France’s Nord region, at the site.
Reports from the ground suggest that the fire began after a fight broke out between rival Afghan and Kurdish groups in the camp. The situation escalated after intervention from French riot police, which led to further clashes between security forces and residents and left at least 10 people injured. Fortunately, no one is reported to have died.
It is understood that the initial fight was a result of the terrible shortage of shelters for newer arrivals to the camp, which was set up in 2016 by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). The camp’s population swelled after the demolition of the Calais “jungle” camp 19 miles east of the site, which was estimated to have housed more than 10,000 refugees. The majority of the new arrivals were of Afghan descent, but the older population of the camp was predominantly Kurdish.
Annie Gavrilescu, regional manager for Help Refugees UK told me: “Shelter allocation in the camp was basically controlled by a criminal gang, rather than by the French authority AEFJI, which was mandated by the local government to manage the camp.” Tensions between camp residents have been high for some time, evidenced by a number of smaller conflicts that have broken out in recent months. AEFJI’s decision to take down dozens of shelters in the previous weeks in an attempt to reduce the camp’s population to 700 further escalated the situation.
Ahmed*, an unaccompanied 17 year-old from Afghanistan who had been living with friends in the camp told me via a call that after the fire broke out, they had nowhere to go: “Five or six hundred Afghan people, we walked on the train tracks towards Calais. We went to sleep in a forest between Calais and Dunkirk.”
He reassured me that police were at the site and that food and water provisions were on their way. But he sounded distressed. “I am feeling very bad, this is a big problem,” he said. “Still we have no food, no water, our situation is very bad. I don’t know what we can do. It is cold outside at night, but now that Dunkirk is finished I don’t know where I can sleep today.”
For refugees caught up in the slow-moving French bureaucracy, the fire was particularly devastating. Basam*, a Kurdish-Iraqi refugee who had been evacuated by police to a nearby basketball court, said: “All of my documents were burnt in the fire. I had a paper to say I am refugee in France. Now again I have nothing.
“I am angry with the government [of] France. Before they make us sleep in chicken sheds, and now they say we have to sleep outside.”
I also spoke to Isis Mera, volunteer who has been supporting women and children in the camp for over a year. She told me the harrowing story of Fatema* and her seven-month-old daughter, Iranian refugees who have been residents in the camp for the past five months. Fatema had recently miscarried her second pregnancy, and before the fire broke out yesterday she had been seen in the camp by a gynaecologist. The doctor had scheduled an operation for the following morning to remove the miscarried foetus, but events made it impossible for her to travel to the hospital. She was picked up in the morning by aid workers from outside a train, having tried to make her own way back to the burning camp to seek medical advice.
Approximately half of the camp’s ex-residents are currently being housed in three gymnasiums close to the site, whilst many are still sleeping rough in the area surrounding the camp. The camp is also reportedly home to 120 unaccompanied minors, who have been disguising themselves as adults in order to be allowed to remain in camp. However, this means they have not been allowed to enter the gymnasium reserved for families, and their only option for now is to stay with older men or to go on the streets.
Once again, gaps in service provision are being filled by humanitarian organisations. The Dunkirk Legal Support Team, in conjunction with French charity L’Auberge des Migrants collected data from 120 unaccompanied minors last Sunday and are now liaising with relevant authorities to track them down and ensure their safety. It is thought that at least 50 of these minors have family in the UK, but not a single Home Office official has visited the site to meet or assess any of them.
Help Refugees UK has been lobbying the French authorities for help, not only with the hundreds of minors now living on the streets, but for those who lost everything in the fire, as well as addressing the root causes of the fire in the first place. It has also set up an emergency fund for those who would like to donate.
As with the fires that ravaged the Calais camp during its demolition in October 2016, this fire was a tragic but inevitable consequence of a failure of management on the part of the French Regional and State governments. Unless the French government finds a way to adequately provide for their refugee population, and the British government provides those with the legal right to asylum in the UK with a safe process to transfer there, it seems likely that even more refugees will be made homeless in the near future.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.