Grande-Synthe: Inside the refugee crisis

11 Mins read

by Daisy Forrester, Esmee Tovey-Ashforth and Max Gayler

The victims of the refugee crisis have been branded “economic migrants”, “rapists” and “thieves” by media and governments across Europe.

However, when Artefact travelled to the Grande-Synthe refugee camp in Dunkirk, France, we found life there to be quite the opposite.

Whilst the conditions in the camp are abysmal, with widespread illness and disease, there is a unique sense of community inside the barbed wire fences.

The camp is located a just few miles from the coast that represents the end of their journey to safety.

It is not large; spanning around a kilometre each way, but the extreme and stark juxtaposition of the camp next to immaculate rows of housing that line the streets opposite is a haunting contrast between the haves and the have nots.

The police guard the entrance, not moving from their post throughout our time there.

We heard from one man, the father of two little boys, how he and his family were awoken in the middle of the night by the Gendarmerie (the French police) shining torches into their tent.

According to the volunteers, the police have been one of the largest problems they have faced in ensuring the survival of some of the most vulnerable of the refugees.

They have been prevented by the police from moving essential items such as tents and tools inside the camp, “they think that if we make it any safer then it will be appealing for them. That they won’t want to leave.” said Maddie Harris, one of the permanent volunteers at Dunkirk.

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. One refugee told us “The French people and their police do not want to help us. We do not want to stay in this place or this country anymore.”

Before it became a refugee camp, the Grande-Synthe was a football ground and green area that was ear-marked for conversion into an eco-housing estate.

In the summer of 2015, when refugees were initially travelling through France, the Grande-Synthe camp was merely a pit stop to their intended destinations, housing around up to 100 people.

When two of the permanent aid workers Phoenix Clough and Maddie Harris arrived at the camp in September, it was home to around 300 refugees, but over the course of a few months the number exploded to around 3,000 inhabitants.

Maddie says the rate at which the camp has grown has been alarming as the crisis in Syria and across the Middle East has got worse.

When the key group of volunteers arrived, they were the first to help the camp and the situation was desolate: “Men were walking in women’s sandals, five sizes too small, through ankle deep mud,” said Maddie, “we didn’t know where to begin.”

Whilst the camp was initially overwhelmed, the growth witnessed last year has had the positive effect of bringing more help, aid and publicity to the desolate circumstances in which the inhabitants now find themselves.

They now have volunteers entering the camp throughout the week, whereas before the refugees were left with only a handful of aid workers, who were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work to be done there for the majority of the time.

A landmark ruling made in January 2106 is the first glimmer of change and hope for many of the refugees who have been separated from their families after months of despair.

UK courts allowed four young refugees living in the Jungle camp in Calais, a short journey from Grande-Synthe, to join their families in the UK after being torn apart by war and tragedy.

This unanimous ruling paves the way for more minors, and perhaps even adults to find the freedom they are seeking in the UK.

While the ruling is effective immediately for the four young Syrians fortunate enough to be reunited with their families, it is too late for some.

The death toll included 15-year-old Masud from Afghanistan who suffocated after boarding a truck in Dunkirk attempting to reach his sister who is living in England.

However, they may not have a choice. On the day we visited, the UK Border Force had sent representatives to the camp for the first time. After months of waiting, they were finally being given information.

“Nobody knows what is going to happen to them, so this is positive,” says Phoenix, “even if it is bad news, it is still positive because at least they know something more.”

On this occasion they were here to explain a ruling to change French asylum laws, moving from a minimum three-year wait to process an application to a maximum of nine months.

While this change is positive for those who wish to stay in France, whose numbers remain few, it seems like the British government are sending another message to the refugees here.

A message telling them they aren’t getting past the UK border.

In a bid to prevent the camp from growing even further, French authorities have blocked aid to the camp, meaning that the necessities the camp so desperately needs are restricted.

The French Police that patrol the entrance to the camp will not allow anyone in without monitoring the contents of their bags, for fear the camp will grow.

When we arrived, men in white boiler suits heaved piles of ash from burnt down tents into abandoned corners of the camp; damage from fires caused by gas explosions.

Piles of rubble and burnt remains from tents, shoes and clothes are scattered throughout the paths of the camp, leaving hollow spaces where people once were settled.

With gas, tents and general necessities being blocked by the authorities, these empty spaces are likely to never be filled again, putting yet more strain on those who have lost everything.

Maddie told us about how the blocking of aid means they are unable to replace any tents lost to fires. “We’re not supposed to, but we’re having to sneak tents in, as the situation is too desperate not to.”

With temperatures plummeting to below freezing, families have to share already over-crowded tents with others, just to ensure everyone has a fighting chance of making it through the winter.

The aid provided at the camp by the stationed aid workers is a far cry from enough despite their best efforts.

With in excess of around three thousand people currently living at Grande-Synthe, aid workers and volunteers are working tirelessly in order to provide help and sanitation in an already dire environment.

Although Aid Box Convoy, a Bristol-based charity, is constantly sending over volunteers, the worsening conditions caused by cold and rainy weather means that the cleanliness of the camp is not a priority.

Empty takeaway boxes, wrappers, bottles and food-waste litter the floor of the camp, meaning that vermin control is a seemingly impossible task.

  • Refugees from Syria

The most harrowing story we heard in our time there was that of Ahmad Aziz. He fled Syria after receiving threats from Daesh (ISIL).

Ahmad had aided the British Army as an interpreter, and he told us of his dreams of joining the RAF when he reached England. This however, marked him as a traitor in the eyes of ISIL. Fearing for his life and for the lives of his family, he ran.

Despite having a British passport, he was separated from his wife and nine-month-old son, Oscar. The UK Government informed him that without proof he could support his young family, they were unable to join him. So, he travelled back to Syria to bring his family to safety.

Their journey to make it to Dunkirk was not easy, with Oscar contracting hypothermia living in the impossible conditions they were faced with. “Oscar was in a coma for two days,” Ahmad told us, after inviting us into his tent to share tea and fruit, the generosity and kindness of him and his neighbours when they have so little never failing to leave us speechless.

“He didn’t cry or open his eyes, he just slept.” It is hard to imagine that the playful, smiling baby sat with us was ever that close to death. Oscar is still not well; he suffers from asthma and has a cough that goes bone deep. The same as most of the children living here, whose fragile little bodies are less able to cope with the cold and damp, but he is getting better.

We asked Ahmad what he hopes for the future, what kind of life he dreams of for his son. He told us, lighting up with passion and hope: “I have lived in a war for my whole life… the civil war, Saddam, ISIS… This is not the life I want for my son. I want my son to be free, to not worry. I do not want Oscar to follow in my footsteps, I do not want him to be like me, because I have never felt happiness ever in my life.”

We spoke to Abdullah Ttahsin, who has lived at the camp with his family for six weeks,  about the wellbeing of his two daughters, Havin and Hana ages six and four: “Every night they wake up scared because of the rats crawling into our tent. I found one crawling over Hana’s face whilst she was asleep. They also get into our food supplies and there’s no way of keeping them out.”

Because of the circumstances under which people have been forced out of their homes and countries, the camp plays host to a lot of incredibly vulnerable families.

Aid worker Phoenix Clough told us about a woman, who’s husband was hospitalised after an attack made my ISIL, and in fear, told her to run with their four children.

“After arriving at the camp, she found it intensely hard to trust anyone because she was so frightened and we made a decision to place all of the vulnerable families close to one another in the hope of forming a small, supportive community,” she told us.

We met one of the most vulnerable families living at the camp. Father of four Bihar Barakat, told of us of the horrors that forced him and and his family out of Kurdistan: “I couldn’t take my kids to school, I was scared ISIS would take my daughter. They told us they would take her away, and they made us cover our children with scarves. My wife’s brother had a bomb put in his car, they blew him up. So we had to run”.

Slightly out of the centre of the camp, there is a tent specifically providing aid to women and children. As the camp is predominantly formed of men, the volunteers saw an opportunity to give women a place in which they can get blankets and clothing, without having to compete with men for necessities.

With only ten porta-loos provided for the entirety of the camp, signs posted on the doors appeal to volunteers and refugees to help dig trenches in order to divert excess water away from the centre of the camp.

Shower blocks located near the entrance of the camp are able to provide clean water for a limited time of around eight minutes per shower per person, with many people resorting to washing in one of the two water points housed under corrugated iron shelters, in order to avoid the water being cut off

Although food parcels are delivered daily, the supplies are meagre in comparison to population of the camp.

Salad bags, vegetables, rice and pasta are placed in crates, with vast crowds of people running to gather food as quickly as it is passed out.

A father of four who has been living at the camp with his family for two months and who wished to remain anonymous, told us that the quality of the food is questionable, “the food is always expired and it makes us sick”.

An on-site kitchen based in the centre of the camp is open throughout the day serving warm meals and drinks, but rations are still incredibly low, despite these meals being separate from the daily food parcels provided for camp.

When lunchtime hits, a van serving hot soup is overwhelmed with hungry people when sadly, there are simply not enough supplies to go around.

Around 15 small children are gathered in a tent on the edge of the camp. They are each clutching a brightly coloured balloon and you can see glimmers of happiness and laughter in their eyes as they sing the letters of the alphabet and play.

You could easily forget that we are stood in knee-deep mud in a refugee camp. But that is the point of this school, set up to give these children a fighting chance of a future.

This recent development has seen a small group of English teachers group together in order to provide a basic education for the children of the camp.

With around 300 children living at Grande-Synthe, this school is a saving grace for children who want to learn English and provides them with a place in which they can feel as free as any other child in education.

A teacher at the school, who wanted to remain anonymous, told us that “the key principles of any school are applied here”, despite it being little more than a small tent on the edge of the camp, with a spray-painted alphabet around the outside. “We ran out of paint when we got to the letter ‘U’ so that’s all our alphabet comes to for now”.

The school is a sanctuary in which the children may feel safe, following the traumatic journey so many of them have made in order to make it this far.

Like any other school, these volunteers seek to provide each child with an opportunity to learn and be listened to, a regrettably far cry from what our government are willing to do for them.

Many of the children in the camp have witnessed horrors in their short lives that would traumatise an adult.

They have seen their homes blown apart by bombs sent by Daesh, and by governments such as our own. They have watched helplessly as family members and friends disappeared without a trace around them.

Campaigners say it is imperative that these children are not held at a disadvantage due to their current situation, something that every person who sets foot into this camp is fighting for.

Medecins Sans Frontieres provides basic medical aid for the camp around three times a week, but due to a lack of volunteers, they are unable to increase the number of visits.

With weather conditions worsening, and sanitation issues rising, the people in the camp are unable to get the medical attention they need regularly.

With aid workers unqualified to give out medical advice, the situation is getting increasingly desperate, with all inhabitants fearing for the health of their families.

We heard the story of one woman who was taken to hospital following a miscarriage, with her two young children in tow, only to be discharged without warning in the middle of the night, leaving her to travel back to the camp scared and distraught.

The lack of care from those outside of the camp speaks volumes about the current refugee crisis as we see people in need of help being cast aside to prevent dependency on public services such as hospitals and doctors.

Jeremy Corbyn visited the camp just two days after Artefact, bringing media coverage and shedding light on the appalling conditions within the camp.

In an interview with Sky News, Corbyn brought light to the mainstream media the “conditions [in Dunkirk] were disgusting beyond belief, amongst the worst I’ve ever seen; a health hazard for everyone, [there are] unaccompanied children in them, people with health problems living in them, people who have fled from wars, and human rights disasters, who are seeking safety in modern Europe.”

He went on to express disgust at the lack of help from many of the wealthiest countries in the European Union, saying “we can, should, and must do something a bit better about it.”

Despite David Cameron’s pledge to grant 20,000 refugees asylum following the public outcry sparked by the death of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, in the last year figures released by the UNHCR show that the UK has granted asylum or another form of protection to just 1,868 as well as having the fewest refugees per 100,000 people in the whole of Europe.

Many of the wealthiest countries in Europe are providing the least help for people who are desperately in need of aid and have had their lives destroyed.

Homes ravaged by war and families torn apart in unimaginable ways are now living in purgatory, co-existing just metres from middle class suburbia.

No matter what class, culture or creed, campaigners say we are all humans and each deserve the chance of a future.



All images by Max Gayler

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