Grande Synthe refugees camp; France’s first-ever humanitarian camp for refugees opened and has already been shut near Dunkirk, (with opposition from the French government and wrangling over who will pay for it), the Grande-Synthe camp offered an uncertain future to France’s migrants.
The mayor of Grande-Synthe built the camp to replace a tent city that was by many accounts worse than the infamous “Jungle” of Calais. For months, the migrants in Grande-Synthe had been living in 20 hectares (49 acres) of mud and swamp with just two water fountains and no electricity. Unlike the Calais “Jungle,” however, the Grande-Synthe camp was in the middle of town, in a park across the street from a row of neat middle-class homes.
The new, humanitarian camp was relatively easy to build. The mayor’s office set aside 400,000 euros for the project, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), contributed 2.7 million euros and its expertise, and a local volunteer organisation agreed to manage the camp over the long term. It took less than two months to plan and about a week to construct.
Built to the standards of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, at first glance it looks a world better than the old camp: neat rows of wood cabins, men’s and women’s bathrooms every 200 metres, regular food donations and gravel to prevent flooding.
But even before it was finished the camp was caught up in the conflicting interests of the mayor who wanted it, the state that doesn’t, and the rock festival organisers who are supposed to run it. The migrants, meanwhile, are trapped between their own ambitions for a better life and the inflexibility of the European immigration system.
Almost as soon as they had moved into the wood cabins in the new camp, families started building extensions made out of planks, blue tarp and tents. If you share a six-square-metre cabin with three other people, you’d probably want to do your cooking and store your dirty shoes elsewhere.
The big problem is that the camp doesn’t get the immigrants any closer to the end of their journey. To board a truck headed for Calais, they have to meet a smuggler near town, so the relay point is now further away. Border controls at Calais have been tightened since the summer of 2015, when migrant attempts to board buses and cars were at their height. Many of the people in Grande-Synthe don’t have the additional 3,000 to 6,000 euros they will have to pay a smuggler if they do make it to England.
Any kind of migrant camp goes against French policy for several reasons, both official and unofficial. Near the top of Cordet’s list is that the population of a camp is not “controlled” and thus encourages people-smugglers to ply their trade.
With relations between the UK and Europe already tense over migrant issues, France does not want to look like it’s setting up a semi-permanent staging ground for illegal attempts to get to Britain.
However, building a humanitarian camp implicitly acknowledges that France is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Doctors Without Borders is a French institution. The irony of the situation—that an aid group known for working in civil wars in Africa is building a humanitarian camp in suburban France—is lost on no one here, especially not Cordet.
Before he was prefect, Cordet served as director of the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA), from 2007 to 2012. But he did not want to talk about a humanitarian crisis in France.
Officially the camp contained about 1,300 people, all from the former Grande-Synthe camp, and will have a capacity for 2,500 when finished. At the time of the fire, due to migrants coming from Calais, the camp was much bigger than planned. It was divided into six zones. Families and children have been housed in the first two zones, which were first built and are closest to the entrance, so the people won’t have as far to walk to distribution centres.
The cabins were designed by MSF and can be built in 45 minutes each. Each one measures six square metres and is built to house four people (although some families said seven people shared their cabin). Each cabin is stenciled with a neon orange number, and installed with a portable gas heater, an electrical outlet and a vent.
There were two food distribution stations, trailers with toilets and showers, a trailer to distribute blankets, and another for clothes and shoes. Each cabin received one three-litre fuel canister per day.
Men aged between 20 and 45 make up 85 percent of the population. The majority are Iraqi Kurds, but there are small minorities of Kuwaitis and Iranians, and racial tensions can flare.
This tension, between Kurdish and Afghan migrants eventually ended in the fire that distoyed the camp on april 11th 2017. I visited the camp two day after the distruction.
In the forests around the camp groups of refugees are camping illegally.