Julie Ward MEP reports from visit to Grande-Synthe refugee camp

The Calais Jungle ad hoc refugee camp has received a great deal of media attention, situated, as it is, adjacent to the main Channel crossing point with well-used train, vehicle and ferry routes.  But less than an hour's drive south another less well-known refugee camp has grown up in the town of Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, much to the horror of the French authorities who seem paralysed with fear and incapable of implementing any basic administration to deal with a situation that is good neither for the permanent or temporary residents of the town.

The Calais Jungle ad hoc refugee camp has received a great deal of media attention, situated, as it is, adjacent to the main Channel crossing point with well-used train, vehicle and ferry routes.  But less than an hour's drive south another less well-known refugee camp has grown up in the town of Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, much to the horror of the French authorities who seem paralysed with fear and incapable of implementing any basic administration to deal with a situation that is good neither for the permanent or temporary residents of the town.

I was unaware of the camp at Grande-Synthe until I went to the Calais Jungle in early December, an experience which deeply shocked me. Clare Moseley from voluntary organisation Care4Calais mentioned that there had been a fire at the Dunkirk camp the night before, destroying thirty refugee tents.  This was the first I had heard of refugees gathering there. There is communication and movement between the two camps with the volunteer aid workers supporting each other and some of the refugees move from one to the other, particularly the Kurds who feel more comfortable in the smaller, quieter camp at Grande-Synthe. 

The storms that created devastation in my North West England constituency in December eventually moved south and saturated Nord-Pas-de-Calais. The flimsy tents and temporary structures that had been haphazardly constructed on a patch of land in Grande-Synthe, adjacent to a quiet housing estate, are unfortunately below the water table and were quite literally swamped, adrift in a morass of gigantic mud pools. Where there had previously been pathways through the tents, leading to communal areas such as a kitchen and the school, there was now a water course. I saw all this with my own eyes over the second weekend of January when I visited the camp after I was made aware of an imminent humanitarian crisis facing the inhabitants by a constituent, Sarah from Penrith, who travelled with her daughter Jenny, in a car crammed full of basic supplies, to meet me at the train station in the town.

We parked in a nearby retail area in order to use the toilets before going on site as limited sanitary facilities is one of the many problems in the camp. Dozens of refugees were wandering about the car park, looking for bits of wood to use as firewood and other items that would help make their living situation more bearable. Some came to ask us if we had food. The recent blockade by the French authorities has made it harder for aid volunteers to get vital supplies into the camp. The unexpected interpretation of local by-laws at the end of December, prohibiting delivery of specific items such as building materials, tents, sleeping bags and blankets, seemed designed to discourage people from staying on site, but the refugees have nowhere else to go. No-one seems to want them, despite the fact that the majority are Iraqis and Kurds, who supported the UK and allied forces in the war against Saddam Hussein, many as active soldiers. Like the Afghani man in the Calais Jungle who had interpreted for the British forces during their long battle against the Taliban, the Kurds of Grande-Synthe had nurtured hopes that their loyal service to the British people then might count for something now. They have been hugely let down, yet still they greet us with friendly smiles. In the absence of any other British presence here, we are their friends and it is difficult for them to understand why the UK remains closed and unfriendly. From their leaky (or now non-existent) tents in the swamp they make regular attempts to cross the channel, hiding in lorries. I met one man who had made more than ten attempts to escape to England, even hiding in a refrigerated lorry in minus 20 degrees Celsius for four hours, only to be discovered and returned to the port. 


 Maddie took us into the camp, her mobile phone ringing every few minutes with questions and queries, updates and information about all manner of logistical information. She arrived in Dunkirk when the camp first set up in November 2015 and has the best overview of what is happening and what is needed. Like many of the volunteers here she worked on music festivals and is not easily phased by the sight of mud, but the swamp at Grande-Synthe is not the end of a four day festival that one can wave goodbye to as you go home to a warm and cosy house; instead it feels like the end of the road for the exhausted refugees who have come so far but now seem stuck. 

Maddie takes us to the school, a rough wooden-framed shelter with a curtained doorway and a makeshift stove where volunteers engage in play and learning activities with the children. A little girl gives me foil-wrapped Christmas chocolates from an out of date package. Other children are helping paint a sign for the wall. It says 'Welcome' in English and Kurdish. I sit on a pile of cushions and play with the little girl. I feel useful and I realise that is why all these extraordinary volunteers are here, many of them British women, doing whatever they can. It is simply too much to bear at home - sitting and watching the suffering, knowing the plight of these fellow human beings, and feeling ashamed of the inadequate state response.

Imogen, a mother of three from Bristol who has set up Aid Box Convoy, arrives to take us further into the camp, through the squelching mud, past dozens and dozens of ruined tents, soaked bedding and mud-caked clothes. I think about the muddy trenches endured by soldiers 100 years ago and how two world wars were supposed to liberate us from racism and fascism. I don't want to admit it was all in vain but I feel that the world is a bleak and sombre place and I struggle to know how I can be of assistance, just one voice in a sea of sorrow. But someone tells me that the local mayor, Damien Carême, is being pro-active, trying to get things moving so that a properly serviced camp with toilets, water and better facilities can be constructed. This will be managed by Médecins Sans Frontières but it is still weeks away. Labour MPs Yvette Cooper and Keir Starmer have also visited Grande-Synthe in recent days. Perhaps together we can make a difference? It is incumbent on all of us to speak up, to say what we have seen with our own eyes and demand a political as well as a humanitarian solution.

I am thinking these things as Imogen takes us to the edge of the camp where it meets the perimeter fence of a sports complex. A few hundred yards away from the mud and despair of the refugees lies a state of the art leisure facility; we can hear the sound of children and young people having fun, playing organised sport. The volunteers at both Calais and Dunkirk have been trying to provide opportunities like this for the refugee children, but taking them into nearby towns where people have been fed a diet of fear and hatred for Muslims is not conducive to normal relations.


In the communal cafe we sit and watch groups of refugee men chat and drink tea. A Belgian volunteer comes in and asks for help clearing the ground. The men are slow to respond. They have lost their sense of motivation. Listlessness prevails. Eventually they get up to help. I am glad but I know it won't last. The rain will come again and the mud will spread and all their efforts will seem wasted. I feel very angry at the waste of human capital. 

About a quarter of the camp inhabitants are families but the women and children tend to maintain a low profile. All the men I speak to are desperate to work, to earn a living and provide for themselves and their families and friends. They are, in general, educated and skilled, from all walks of life with lots to offer the labour market. Why is it so difficult for us to find them useful things to do? We need new housing to be built, the NHS is under pressure with not enough nurses or doctors, the flood damage in the north of Britain requires the rebuilding of roads and bridges. We struggle to encourage start-ups and new businesses. Yet here are people from a hard-working, entrepreneurial culture who just need a little bit of help. I recall Manchester's 'Curry Mile', the 7-11 corner shops in Lancashire's mill towns, the ubiquitous market traders with vans full of fabric and clothes to sell. These people arrived in Britain, often as destitute refugees, and helped to create our collective wealth. Migration, refugees and resettlement has been a characteristic of life on Earth since time began.

I continue my musing as we walk to the camp entrance past the Hands International makeshift vaccination centre. On the way I meet Imogen's husband, Dugald, who works in senior management for a large company. He tells me about his involvement in a CBI delegation that went to Downing Street not so long ago. Without exception those business leaders wanted to deliver a positive message about migrant labour. It is their understanding that immigrants have helped to make Britain 'Great' and so to deny this possibility now is nothing less than short-sightedness on the part of the government.

As I exit the camp I recognise Hossain, a man I met in the Calais Jungle. We greet each other like old friends. I remember him because he had been deeply depressed and shown me the scars on his arms where he had tried to kill himself. I tell him he looks much better, happier. He smiles and agrees with me, tells me that he prefers Grande-Synthe as it is quieter and calmer than Calais. Here he can be with his Kurdish community more easily. Then he says that seeing me again has made him happy. If I did not know before what to do to make a difference I knew it then; I must never forget these fellow human beings or their stories. It is my job to tell others what I have seen and learnt, to give voice to those without a voice and to shame those that would turn their backs and close their ears on the suffering of the displaced and dispossessed. David Cameron - are you listening? 


Julie Ward MEP


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Thank you to Sarah Wilson for the photographs.


published this page in Human Rights 2016-01-20 11:14:09 +0000

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