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Dunkirk Refugee Camp – “The Failure of our Humane Europe”

In the northern French town of Grande-Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk and a two-hour drive from the Dutch border, it is harrowing to see how the European asylum policy is failing. Plagued by infectious diseases, violent people smugglers and unwilling authorities, the 3000 inhabitants of the refugee camp there are desperately trying to survive the winter. “Are we not human?”


Illustrations JULES CALIS

“This way,” gestures Veerle Slegers (48). Behind her, the truck of PortAgora – the Dutch center for European cooperation of which the former Socialist Party (SP) politician from Tilburg is chairwoman – drives past the police officers guarding the main entrance to the camp. The truck is slowly guided through the muddy high street of the camp. As soon as the tailgate comes down, a crowd of coughing men, all wrapped in thick coats, appears behind the vehicle. Eagerly they receive the relief items brought over from the Netherlands. Especially the firewood is in great demand – heat is scarce in the wintry camp.

“This is by far the worst situation I’ve ever seen,” says Slegers, who has previously done aid work in Southeast Asia and South America. Her gaze slides along the countless tents in the filthy, ubiquitous mud. “Dirt, cold, disease, and chaos. It’s even worse than in Calais, where people at least have reinforced shelters and shops. There are only ramshackle camping tents here, as the French authorities don’t allow materials into the camp with which semi permanent, weatherproof accommodations can be built.” In addition to pieces of wood of more than 30 centimeters long, the police also blocks gas canisters, tools, rope, tarpaulins, and tents. Whatever the camp does have, has been smuggled in by volunteers.

Only vehicles with a permit from the British NGO Aid Box Convoy (ABC) are allowed to enter the grounds, after a check by the police. The French offer no aid, only a dozen officers at the gate. That policy of discouragement, introduced last December, is meant to prevent the camp from expanding and to prompt the inhabitants to leave, according to Slegers, who is on her third aid trip here. “But that policy obviously doesn’t work. There are still new refugees arriving daily, so this humanitarian drama is only getting larger, especially now the camp in Calais has been largely cleared.”

Since September, the number of camp residents has grown explosively. In a park on the edge of a middle class residential area, where previously only about a hundred refugees stayed, now some 3000 people camp out in tents, including 300 children. The weather has turned the overcrowded park into an icy mud pool, filled with human excrement, food scraps, and rats. Scabies, pneumonia and bronchitis are rampant in the camp, which entirely relies on aid organisations and volunteers for food and medical care. Among other things, they run a kitchen, a small school and clothing distribution centers there. Electricity is rare in the camp. At night it’s pitch dark, save the occasional campfire.

The population consists mostly of Kurds, from Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Along the main street – named Kurdistan Avenue – groups of men warm themselves with smoldering logs, talking in the dialects Kurmançî en Soranî. A former Peshmerga fighter lifts his jamadani (turban) to show the long scar an Islamic State grenade left him. The terror group has driven many of the camp inhabitants to flee their countries. All have their hopes fixed on a future in the United Kingdom – the promised land, which blocks asylum requests, although many inhabitants with family there have a right to family reunification under the Dublin Convention, signed by the British.


One of them is Hussain Mahmood (40), an Iraqi from Makhmur, a town near the IS stronghold of Mosul. The incessant threat of terror and the complete lack of a future in the Iraqi ‘mafia state’ pushed him to flee his home five months ago. A grueling journey through Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans, to name a few, brought him to Grande-Synthe a week ago. He’s staying there with his sister and his cousin. His brothers and another sister already live in the UK. His wife still resides in Iraq.

He says that he hopes to be reunited with his family in Britain as soon as possible, because the conditions here are becoming unbearable. “The camp is cold, wet and dirty. These fragile tents can’t protect us from the weather, so we have to sleep and eat in the mud, between the rats.” He points to a group of children who are rummaging through heaps of thrash, looking for something to amuse themselves with. “There are kids playing in this disease-ridden mess. How can you allow such a thing?”

Mahmood expresses his dissatisfaction with the French government, which, according to him, deliberately pesters the inhabitants. “We can’t bring pallets into the camp, on which we can sleep dry, or gas canisters, with which we can cook and keep ourselves warm. The French want to keep the camp unliveable, in the hope that we’ll leave, but they’re forgetting we can’t go back. Our countries are being ravaged by war and oppression. I don’t understand why Europe treats us like this. Are we not human? Where are our human rights? The only ones that try to help us are volunteers.”


At the intersection with a mud path wryly named Hope Street, Nurettin Altundal (50), a representative for the Socialist Party in the Dutch province Noord-Brabant and of Turkish Kurdish descent, is plowing through the sludge. It’s the second aid trip he has undertaken with PortAgora. “It’s a disgrace that this is even possible in Western Europe,” he sighs, looking at a wheel-less delivery van that has been turned into a shelter, a tube protruding from the passenger’s window functioning as a chimney. “I know what the circumstances were when these people had to flee. Therefore, this is deeply offensive, for ourselves and for these refugees.”

“These people have fled a hellish war, in which we as Europeans are even taking part. So we create unrest and bombard their countries, but we’re abandoning the people who are then forced to flee. Our Europe, with her values of solidarity, compassion and humanity, has completely lost her way. It’s winter and we are allowing families with children to live in this icy, filthy mud. This is not how a government should deal with human beings. The least the French government could have done was to provide them with adequate facilities.”

Because those are certainly nothing to write home about, says Naser Shariatpaneh (31), a Kurdish political activist from the Iranian town of Sardasht who has been living in the camp for three months. For the 3000 inhabitants, there are thirty portable toilets and two container buildings, each with four flush toilets – though only two of those are still functional. The flush toilets are strewn with excrement, sludge, and stained tissues and are spreading a pungent odor. “Inhumane,” he says. “The portable toilets are less filthy, but have no water, which we use in our culture to clean ourselves after toilet visits. Hence, many people use abandoned tents or trenches, which is terrible for hygiene.”


The toilets, showers and water points are there only thanks to aid organisations. Inhabitants can get drinking water at two stations with eight taps each. “Not nearly enough for all these people,” Shariatpaneh says. “You have to forever stand in a queue.” He points to a crowd on the other side of the main street, soaked by the rain, waiting in line for a place in one of the shower units. “We are allowed to shower eight minutes a day, with cold water, but for that you have to wait 45 minutes as well. But it’s better than nothing.”

Doctors Without Borders and Doctors of the World provide basic medical care on weekdays, but, according to Shariatpaneh, that is doing little to help. “They distribute medicines like paracetamol, but those are ineffective against serious diseases – and there a lot of those here,” he says, nodding to an uncontrollably coughing passer-by. “Many people have ugly burns because of accidents with gas canisters and fires, the only sources of light and warmth.” The camp dreads the frost, he says. “Now it’s mostly dirt and rain that make life difficult, but if it starts freezing we’re going to be in real trouble. There are kids with fever and pregnant women. They will freeze to death.”


To make matters worse, rival gangs of people smugglers have lately been increasingly asserting themselves. On January 26 and February 10 the camp was rocked by shootings, in which several people were injured. The violence is a sensitive issue among the refugees, who are highly dependant on the trafficking gangs to reach the UK. “They are everywhere in the camp,” Shariatpaneh says cautiously.

He estimates that ’99 percent’ of the residents have already paid the two- to six thousand pound for a place in a truck to Britain. “And if that attempt fails, you have to pay again the next time. But it’s the only way people still regularly reach the UK. So most of us have no choice than to deal with these gangs. We need them for the crossing and they use us to make money. If you don’t make trouble, they aren’t particularly dangerous.”


However, in mid-February ABC published an alarming statement on the camp website. “Volunteers who have been present when these incidents have occurred have said that they could easily been shot and it was just luck that they were not. There have also been incidents where volunteers have been threatened with weapons.” One of those volunteers was the husband of the Dutchwoman M., who will remain anonymous here because of her safety.

The couple had been in the camp for three weeks to provide aid. “He got a gun to his head from a smuggler, who demanded that he leave the camp. The gangs dislike the volunteers because we give refugees hope. That’s bad for business, because desperate people are easier to extort.” The couple experienced the January 26 shooting from up close as well. “That was terrifying. The bullets flew straight past our bus. Those gangs stop at nothing to gain control of the camp. It’s horrible for the refugees, who already live in such dire circumstances. Now they also have to be afraid of smugglers, who are often drunk and very aggressive.”

That the situation is deteriorating, is affirmed by Samantha van Urk (24), a Dutch volunteer who has been sleeping in the camp for the last five weeks. “Almost every night there are scuffles, but shootings and stabbings are becoming more common.” However, she as well wants to emphasize that the refugees are the victims: “These people are mercilessly exploited and extorted by the gangs – those are the ones with weapons. And that’s only possible because the UK and France have washed their hands of these people, so trafficking gangs now have a free hand. Because governments won’t take responsibility, there are shots now being fired here between tents with families in them.”

That lack of decisiveness was one of the reasons why she moved into the camp more than a month ago, not long after she received her master’s degree in cognitive neurosciences in London. “These people here are illegal, but in some bizarre way it is legal to leave families suffering, hopelessly wedged between dirt, cold, rats and gangs.” As a European, Van Urk feels obliged to provide aid, even though she thinks that should be done by governments. “You might call this the failure of our humane Europe.”


To improve the living conditions, Doctors Without Borders started building a new camp in mid-January, with better shelters and facilities, in cooperation with the municipality of Grande-Synthe. The camp is supposed to open early March, after which the municipality wants to clean up the old encampment, but the construction is proving to be difficult. Many refugees aren’t enthusiastic about the plan, although that sentiment is seldom publicly expressed. “Trust in the government is minimal,” says Van Urk. “Many residents, wrongly, think that in the new camp they’ll be forced to give fingerprints and seek asylum in France – which is probably the last country where they would want to do that. So many will refuse to move there.”

Staring at the policemen frisking incoming and outgoing refugees, Slegers underscores the urgency of a solution. “As a result of endless negotiations with authorities, the new camp still isn’t finished. Moreover, it appears many refugees don’t want to go there. It won’t be long before people start dying here, as a result of disease, cold or violence. There are seriously ill people lying in leaky tents, while aid organisations struggle with limited resources. And the weather is only deteriorating. A period of frost could easily follow.” She doesn’t even want to think about what that could mean.

“Even if you think that refugees should return to their countries, as a government you don’t leave them hopelessly languishing here. Give them accommodation, sanitation, and food, explain to them clearly what the asylum possibilities are and evaluate carefully who is entitled to family reunification – there are even unaccompanied minors here, with relatives in the UK. And if you think they should leave, then help them with their return.” There are countless reasons to adequately address the problem, says Slegers. “Even if you don’t do it for the refugees, do it for the surrounding French community or for the European truck drivers, who also suffer a lot from this situation.”

Europe hopes to solve the problem by closing her eyes, says Altundal, but the opposite is the case. “If nothing is done, this situation will move on to the Netherlands. Already a flow of refugees has started to the Belgian port city of Zeebrugge, so they may soon camp out en masse near our ports. Therefore, we have to highlight what is happening here, so that politicians can no longer ignore it. These refugees want to reach the UK at all costs – and these attempts to stop them clearly aren’t working.”


Where that determination comes from is revealed in the cramped tent of Mohammad Ibrahim (48), a Syrian Kurd with a gentle face from Kobanî, the border town that was largely razed to the ground during an Islamic State siege around the end of 2014. In broken English he explains that there is no life for him there anymore: “My city no longer exists.” With the courage of desperation he has been trying to cross over to the UK for quite a while now, after which he hopes to bring over his wife and four children from Turkey. “It has become almost impossible, but I have to keep trying. We have a future there, insha’Allah.”

For a more detailed view of the drawings: Dunkirk Refugee Camp