It's been five days since I left the refugee camps in Northern France and what I saw in the Grand-Synthe camp, just outside of Dunkirk, continues to play on a loop in my mind.
Home to a couple of hundred people just a few months ago, the camp now has around two thousand inhabitants, 300 of whom are children, living in appalling conditions and at risk of serious disease and illness. The situation is becoming increasingly desperate. The recent stormy weather has flooded the camp, destroying tents and leaving hundreds of refugees with nowhere to sleep. HANDS International, a medical group providing vaccinations in the camp, found that 90% of inhabitants now have scabies. They are concerned about the number of people coughing up blood.
More refugees arrive every day. The majority are Kurdish, fleeing war and persecution in Iraq and Syria. None are there by choice. Many have relatives living in England and are trying to join them. They don't intend to stay in Dunkirk long term, but the likelihood of them making it to England is slim.
The camp is a far cry from the 'Jungle' in Calais, where I had spent the previous few days. There are far fewer shelters and significantly less aid, only rows of flimsy nylon tents that look like they wouldn’t survive a weekend festival, pitched in waterlogged ground. The tents are uninsulated and in many cases not waterproof. They cannot withstand the stormy weather and constant downpours so need replacing regularly. But this isn't possible. Two weeks ago, a by-law was passed by the Dunkirk authorities restricting the access of building materials, tools, wood of more than 30 centimeters and tents of any kind into the camp. As we clearly aren't in possession of these items, the Gendarmerie let us in.
[The camp] has eight taps, one for every 375 people, and one toilet for every 150 people
I pass men, women and children, all of whom greet me with a wide smile and a hello in English. One tent has a big Justin Bieber concert poster attached to it. A young man tells me it’s his friend’s tent and that Justin Bieber is playing a concert here in the camp. His group of friends smile and laugh as we share the joke and I'm amazed by their ability to keep their spirits up despite the hell they are living in.
The tent arrives – the last one in the camp – and we head off to where the men have found a spot to erect it, a slight clearing in the woods behind a row of tents. We step over sodden blankets and clothes buried deep in the mud, over piles of rubbish and puddles of what looks like human urine, and start to clear away the branches and shrubbery from the area that is to be their new home. They tell us three more men are joining them and I exchange a look with the other volunteer, knowing the tent we have is not going to be adequate for six. It turns out not to be adequate for anyone, it is just the top sheet. I can't bear to leave them with nowhere to sleep so we promise to drive back to the warehouse in Calais and return with a complete six-person tent.
I have to turn away to hide the tears in my eyes as he realises that this camp, this festering, rat-ridden camp without adequate shelter, sanitation or food, is likely to be his home for the foreseeable future.
We get out of the car to talk to an older English couple who have come from the camp. They show us a hole in the fence that we can get through. We load up as many tents as we can carry between the four of us. I'd brought a torch from the warehouse and we are able to navigate our way through the guide ropes, muddy ditches and tree stumps to the main path. We deliver one tent to the Iraqi men who thank us profusely. The man who asked about getting to England also apologises repeatedly. He is uncomfortable with having caused us the inconvenience of returning with a tent.
In the car park we meet two young men, they can't be much older than 16 or 17. In their limited English, they tell us they love the UK, that every night they dream of the UK. "London! Birmingham!" one says. "No, Stoke-on-Trent!" says the other, with a big grin. "I want to live in Stoke-on-Trent! My cousin is there. He says it's very good." They ask us to take them with us. They can’t sleep here, the Jungle makes them crazy, they tell us. We hug them, but we can’t help them. They smile and wave and blow kisses until we drive off and can no longer see them.
Yesterday, I spoke with Maddie Harris, one of just eight autonomous untrained volunteers working together at Grande-Synthe doing whatever they can to help. She told me almost 100 people arrived in Grand-Synthe that morning from the Calais Jungle. They were willing to swap the better living conditions and insulated shelters for the damaged tents of Grand-Synthe because, they said, they could "no longer bear the active police presence in the Jungle," referring to the alleged tear-gassing of the camp.
"We are currently unable to provide these people with tents, blankets or sleeping bags. We are struggling to find even a temporary solution for tonight", says Harris. "Everyone is living in mud. Children are sleeping in wet, freezing tents. The conditions here are utterly appalling. There is one wash station and the showers haven't worked for three months. Aid has dried up and the refugees at Grand-Synthe are not getting what they need."
Shout and share on social media, contact your local MPs, donate money to the crowdfunding page if you can or fill up a van with tents, blankets, fire wood, cooking gas and, most importantly, food and drive it over.
Harris has a message for people in the UK who want to do something to help: "We need to stamp our feet and make a noise to enable any changes – shout and share on social media, contact your local MPs, donate money to the crowdfunding page if you can or fill up a van with tents, blankets, fire wood, cooking gas and, most importantly, food and drive it over."
It seems to me that the only reason people aren’t yet starving or freezing to death is because of volunteers like Maddie. Ordinary people who refuse to stand by and let this happen on our doorstep. But with temperatures set to drop and donations dwindling, it will surely be a struggle to keep the ever-increasing number of refugees there alive.
With thanks to photographer Jordi Oliver.
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