by: Sarah Whitehead
Hundreds of refugees are living in dangerous, unsanitary conditions after days of heavy rain left their camp in northern France ankle-deep in filthy water, while guards have blocked migrants’ attempts to replace tents and rebuild temporary shelters.
Aid agencies working at the camp in Grande-Synthe, Dunkirk, say they are concerned for the health of the refugees due to an apparent ban on building materials, firewood and even blankets being brought into the compound during the cold, damp period.
The site, known as France’s “forgotten” camp and which is about 50 miles from Dover, is estimated to hold 3,000 refugees mainly from Syria, Iran and Iraq.
After Sunday night’s rain, 200 refugees – many of them children – had to leave their sodden tents to keep dry in the distribution shelter. By Monday a huge pool of water stood in the middle of the camp, which has destroyed large numbers of tents. Building rain-proof dry shelters or bringing new tents is forbidden, according to aid workers on the ground.
Laurent Sury, an emergency coordinator for the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has been working in Dunkirk since October, said: “We are worried as there have been almost six weeks of discussions of moving people and nothing has been done.
“Despite the rain there are items we are not allowed to take, such as building materials like wood and new tents, and this is almost certainly because they do not want the camp to expand. It has made help very difficult.”
The French national gendarmerie, or military police, did not respond before publication to a request for clarification of why some building materials and much-needed supplies appeared to be blocked from entering the camp. The French embassy in London were also contacted but again did not provide a comment before the publication deadline.
One week after swaths of northern UK were flooded by Storm Frank, torrential rainfall across the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region has mounted new pressure on a camp already under severe strain.
According to volunteers on the new arrivals desk, between 50 and 100 new refugees have been arriving every day, which combined with the drop in temperature and recent downfall has left the camp completely devoid of resources. A number of refugees have been driven out of the Kurdish part of the Calais camp due to attacks of tear gas and rubber bullets from local guards.
As well as severely damaging their shelter, the rain has also brought disease, attracting flies and rats and causing significant health problems. The organisation Health and Nutrition Development Society International recently came to the camp to distribute flu vaccinations, and out of the 155 individuals they treated 96 had scabies and many were coughing up blood.
According to volunteers on the site, French police have been obstructing efforts to upgrade the camp for two weeks. They say local officers have been instructed not to allow any building materials or tents to enter the camp, making it impossible to replace damaged shelters.
Phoenix Clough, a volunteer from the Bristol based charity AidBox convoy (ABC), said: “We are completely restricted from bringing anything in, even though people are in desperate need. Our belief is that it is an attempt to restrict the growth of the camp.”
She added that the gendarmerie are frequently changing their interpretation of the instructions. “One day they denied blankets being brought but the next day it is OK. But something, else such as firewood, is not allowed,” said Clough.
“Our tiny kitchen is currently full of people just wanting a place to stand to keep dry and warm, but it is not enough.”
One of the refugees is 25-year-old Beshwar, who also volunteers at the camp. Like many of the refugees, he is suffering from the severe cold and will be spending another night in a damp tent.
“We are praying for it not to rain anymore as we can not cope,” he said. “Many people are sick as they are cold and wet. The charities are trying to do their best. We need government help. People are always trying to kill themselves as they can not carry on like this.”Before arriving at the camp, Beshwar was searching for his mother, who he was separated from in Greece, and with his brothers visited up to 60 camps across Europe from Athens to Berlin. The brothers finally found their mother in Dunkirk, which Beshwar says is by far the worst camp he has stayed in.
MSF have been developing plans for the building of a new camp with sufficient resources but a time on when this will start being built has still not been settled.
While a solution is still being decided, the people at Grande-Synthe are left to deal with the damage left by the rain while families and individuals continue to arrive in the hundreds
“We are eight unexperienced volunteers dealing with huge problems, such as toilets not working, medical problems and lack of food and shelter,” said Clough. “The truth is that even if we were allowed to bring resources there is nothing left to give. The aid seems to have stopped coming.”