French mayor behind gutted migrant camp vows it will return

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A migrant camp close to the Channel port of Dunkirk, in north-east France, which housed about 1,500 people in wooden sheltered accommodation, was razed to the ground in a huge blaze on Monday that was started during fighting between groups of Iraqi Kurds and Afghans. The events have further fuelled anti-immigrant rhetoric from candidates campaigning in the French presidential elections, and placed in question the outgoing socialist government’s already reluctant support for the site. But, as Carine Fouteau reports, the local mayor behind the creation of the camp, which opened only last year, has pledged to rebuild it.

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The huge blaze overnight Monday that destroyed much of the camp housing around 1,500 migrants at Grande-Synthe, near the port of Dunkirk in north-east France, has not only left its inhabitants homeless and distressed, but it has also appalled those who had successfully battled against the authorities and political opponents to establish France’s first migrant camp built to international standards.

“It’s a blow to the head,” said Damien Carême, the EELV Green party mayor of the small town of Grande-Synthe, who with the NGO Doctors without borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), was instrumental in creating the c amp which first opened in March 2016. “We’re picking ourselves up,” he added. “We have to face up to it.”

The fire tore through the camp’s 291 wooden housing huts, sparring only about 30. Of the estimated 1,500 population of the camp, 600 people have been given temporary shelter in three local gymnasiums, while the others have taken to the road, either towards Dunkirk or Calais.

Razed to the ground: the camp at Grande-Synthe following the April 10th overnight blaze. © Reuters Razed to the ground: the camp at Grande-Synthe following the April 10th overnight blaze. © Reuters

Carême and others behind the project, which was prompted by the humanitarian crisis at the now-razed squalid “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais, about 40 kilometres west of Grande-Synthe, say they are dismayed at the added plight inflicted on migrant families who have already faced numerous ordeals during their long journey to the French Channel coast in the hope of finding a passage to Britain. But they are also angry that the events last Monday night have provided the government and other political opponents of the camp the opportunity to belittle the project.

The fire occurred after two fights broke out on Monday, in the afternoon and later in the evening, between groups of Iraqi Kurds and Afghans, who made up the majority of those who were housed in the camp and among whom tensions had been running high. According to witness accounts reported by press agency AFP, the conflict centred on the cramped housing conditions. A number of Afghans complained that they were forced to sleep in the camp’s communal kitchens, while the Kurds, who had arrived there before them, were allocated the camp’s wooden housing huts.

“During the first fight, a migrant received a knife-wound to the abdomen,” Carême told Mediapart. “Six people were hurt. Then, at about 10pm, it began again and 15 other people were hurt. Things escalated.” That was when a group of Kurds set fire to the communal kitchens, before a number of Afghans set fire to the wooden housing huts. According to the French interior ministry, the resulting blaze was brought under control in the middle of the night by about 60 firemen, while police intervention succeeded in “limiting the toll of victims to a few wounded”.

Access to the ruined camp is now barred while Dunkirk police proceed with their investigations into the events. “The families are in despair, they’ve lost everything - their few belongings, their documentation,” said Carême. “They are bare, they have nothing left.” He said he was encouraged by a conversation he held on Tuesday with France’s newly-appointed interior minister, Matthias Fekl, who he said had underlined that it is the migrants themselves “who are the prime victims of the disaster”.

“The accommodation in the gymnasiums cannot endure,” added the mayor. “The sites are in town, it’s not manageable with regard to the [local] population […] Despite the hardly favourable [presidential] election period, we’re going to find solutions.”  He said an initial plan is to setup tents or modified containers on the ruins of the camp, once the clean-up operation is completed, before later beginning to re-build the small housing huts, adding, “Perhaps not in wood”.

The rapid progress of the fire has naturally called into question the previous choice of using wood. “There is no miracle solution,” said Doctors Without Borders spokeswoman, Corinne Torre. “The problem is not the materials used. We built this camp because nobody was doing anything, because people were sleeping in woodland amidst mud everywhere. The problem is more to do with the management, the camp remained a camp instead of becoming a a plce to live.” While Doctors Without Borders was involved in building the site, the task of its management was successively handed to two associations.

The first of these was Utopia 56, a Brittany-based association dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to migrants in France, which was later replaced by a Dunkirk-based association, the AFEJI, which manages a number of centres aimed at helping the social integration of adults and children in distress.

“To manage this type of place requires solid supervision, social workers, people capable of taking charge of giving support to families,” said Torre. “That implies a lot of human resources, whereas, on the site, they weren’t sufficiently numerous.”

Added to the tense relations between migrant communities at the Grande-Synthe camp was the major problem of the presence of people smugglers, who have led their clandestine business in the surrounding Channel coast region over a number of years. They are mostly made up of Iraqi Kurds, and charge migrants anything between 3,500-15,000 euros per passage to Britain. Their activities saw a wide circulation of weapons, illustrated by occasional shootings and stabbings in a settling of scores. “Everyone was aware of this explosive context,” argued Torre. “The situation should have been tackled full-on.”

But Grande-Synthe’s mayor Damien Carême contended that it had been. “Weekly meetings were organised at the town hall with the managing association, the police and the public prosecutor,” he said. “Phone taps were placed on those suspected or organizing the [people] trafficking. Over one year, 31 people were thus arrested. Some were given heavy sentences.” But he admitted that the problems remained. The long-established migrant and refugee support organization Cimade was prompted to open a legal aid office in the Grande-Synthe town centre aimed at helping asylum seekers to escape the harassment and pressures applied by people smugglers.

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