Opinion

‘People will die’: A report from the Grande-Synthe refugee camp

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“We live like dogs,” says a Kurdish resident of Grande-Synthe, a burgeoning refugee camp located in an industrial suburb of Dunkerque, France. As the refugee crisis continues to swell across Europe, Grande-Synthe stands as an example of the most perilous living conditions in modern Western society.

The site, currently unrecognized as a refugee camp by French national authorities, is home to an estimated 3,000 persons stuck in a legal stalemate of competing democracies. Consisting primarily of a Kurdish population, Grande-Synthe also hosts refugees from throughout the Levant, including, but not limited to Persians, Syrians, and Afghanis. Currently, the town council estimates roughly 200 of them are children.

Because the refugee status of this camp remains unacknowledged, vital organization such as the UNHCR are prohibited from providing aide.

Volunteer Alain Meuleman of Breden, Belgium observes, “People will die. Of that, I am sure.”

“The last time you had conditions like this: human feces, rats running around biting children at night, one-third of the [European] population died,” says independent photojournalist Diego Cupolo, referring to the bubonic plague.

Stagnant pools of water, human feces and material waste are big issues for this camp where people can go weeks without showering. According to Raphael Etchiberry, communications manager for Medecins Sans Frontiere (MSF), Grande-Synthe currently boasts only 32 toilets, two hand washing stations, and a shower facility that runs at limited capacity (due to lack of electricity). Currently, each toilet services roughly 100 people, where under an ideal sanitary conditions, there should be no more than 20 persons per toilet. And in Grande-Synthe, the showers currently service “200 men, and 40 women per day,” according to Etchiberry.

“We often treat complaints of pulmonary infections, flu, scabies, burns, and injuries to the knees and shoulders from people who try to make the journey [to the U.K] at night,” describes Etchiberry regarding the most recent health concerns.

Sunset in Grande-Synthe. At this time of year, temperatures can drop below freezing at night. (Photo: Katherine Schwartz)
Sunset in Grande-Synthe. At this time of year, temperatures can drop below freezing at night. (Photo: Katherine Schwartz)

The Political Stalemate

While France is currently accepting asylum-seeking applications, many inhabitants of Grande-Synthe refuse to apply. Refugees in both Grande-Synthe and the bigger “Jungle” in Calais (currently housing 6,000 hopefuls) possess a deep distrust for the French government.

“How are we supposed to trust them when they leave us here to rot,” says a refugee from Kurdish Iraq who has been in Grande-Synthe for three months.

Speculation in the camp is that the French government is refusing access to proper humanitarian aide in Grande-Synthe and Calais’ “Jungle” in order to put pressure on the British government to reform restrictive border policies. The theories also assume that at the same time British officials refuse to open their border hoping that French authorities will cave and offer livable conditions for these 9,000+ refugees.

But it is clear to volunteers and authorities that the situation at Grande-Synthe will not change as long as there remains the discrepancy in asylum seeking policies dividing France and the U.K.

Clogging the Drain

Those seeking asylum in the U.K. are restricted from filing an application unless it is submitted on British soil, and because of the country’s non-EU compliant border policies—the only option is for illegal entry. Many spend months, even years, attempting numerous times, often paying sums upwards of 3,000 euros to smugglers who promise them entry to England. The result: a clog in the drain. Refugees pile up in this northern region in France hoping to take advantage of the frequent industrial passages to England.

U.K. law, according to government websites, allows persons that “risk safety in their own country” to file for asylum. The status of asylum seeker remains for five years, during which time authorities have unlimited restrictions for reevaluating and revoking asylum rights.

Sattar Momene, 39, from Shiraz, Iran lived in the U.K. for five years from 2000-2005. His case for residency was refused after authorities determined he could safely return to Iran. He explains that the reason for leaving Iran was for lack of freedom and fear of personal safety. He spoke openly in Iran about the restrictive government policies. “In Iran, we could not talk like this on the street. They will kill you for being a woman out in public with me,” explains Momene. At this point, a crowd had gathered around us, and for those who spoke English, all agreed in unison.

Momene’s openness was something that eventually landed him in prison upon his return.

“After one year [of returning to Iran], they catch me,” explains Momene. “Then I spend three years in prison. After I get out, they move me from Shiraz to Bandrabose where I stay under house arrest. They [the government] didn’t give me nothing. For me, my children, no passport, no I.D.. After two years here, I go back to Shiraz then they catch me again last year.”

Momene continued during this time to spray paint anti-government declarations of freedom across his hometown.

“Then they catch me again. I spent six months in jail, come out, came here,” says Momene as he flips through pictures on his phone of his two children aged six and two.

Like many others in this camp, Momene made the journey on foot from Iran into Turkey. Often facilitated by smugglers, this trek can take upwards of 24 hours and in the winter months there is snow. From Turkey, he traversed the Aegean, like half a million others this year, in a raft of nearly 70 people, where he landed in Lesvos. And from there, his traveled to Athens, then the Balkans, and eventually landed Calais where he spent a total of two months. Currently on his third week in Grande-Synthe, he wants to return to England.

“These are humans”

Provisions provided by locals are stocked up next to the port-a-potties of Grande-Synthe. Many volunteers in neighboring U.K. and Belgium arrive in Dunkerque to provide aid during the weekend when refugees will sometimes frantically stock up as the donations can slow to a trickle during the week. (Photo: Katherine Schwartz)
Provisions provided by locals are stocked up next to the port-a-potties of Grande-Synthe. Many volunteers in neighboring U.K. and Belgium arrive in Dunkerque to provide aid during the weekend when refugees will sometimes frantically stock up as the donations can slow to a trickle during the week. (Photo: Katherine Schwartz)

The conditions in Grande-Synthe are a developing result of Europe’s surge in asylum-seeking refugees. While it had always been a transition point for those en route to Calais, it has only recently seen its number of residents grow to the current numbers.

“If [we] were animals people would speak in horror of this,” says Sabir Kadir, a 39-year-old Grande-Synthe resident from Kurdistan who is a former primary school teacher and father of three. “These are humans, and people say nothing.”

Volunteer Marni Bosanquet with Aid Box Convoy has seen Grande-Synthe grow from 300 to 3,000 people since she began volunteering in the camp. The largest swell of residents began in September. She explains, “It’s growing day-by-day. We never have enough. I can say the obvious, but the friends [refugees] here know what’s going down.”

A Child’s Perspective

Anas, 10, and Shadi, 6 look on to a fire next to their tent. They have been in Grande-Synthe for eleven days. (Photo: Katherine Schwartz)
Anas, 10, and Shadi, 6 look on to a fire next to their tent. They have been in Grande-Synthe for eleven days. (Photo: Katherine Schwartz)

Talking with 10-year-old Anas from Kurdistan, he fans the fire next to his six-year-old sister, Shadi. “I’m very unhappy,” he tells us. “I don’t miss anything from home.” Shadi chimes in,” I love Kurdistan and I can’t understand why you would say that!”

Translator Adam Ahmdi, a Kurdish British citizen who has come down from England to check on the conditions in Grande-Synthe observes, “The refugee camps in Kurdistan, I would say, are a million times better than what you see here,” Ahmdi shakes his head and continues to translate for the two children.

“What do you plan to do in England?” asks another reporter.

Anas: “I want to study.”

“What do you want to study?”

Shadi: “Doctor!”

Anas: “A journatlist.” (My pride swells).

“Why do you want to be a journalist?” I ask.

Anas: “I want to show the world the pain that kids go through.”

The Future

Currently, MSF is financing the construction of a new camp slated to open in roughly 4-6 weeks, weather permitting. Etchiberry explains the site will consist of 500 housing structures, host up to 2,500 people, and meet proper sanitary requirements. Many refugees are still skeptical of the initiative, worried that it will restrict their freedom of movement and their attempts to smuggle themselves into the U.K.

“It doesn’t matter where is [the] camp. We want to go to another country,” replies Momene regarding the new facility.

Donations provided by locals can sometimes be seen going to waste, as volunteer groups here have no access to warehouse space. Something Marni Bosanquet from Aid Box Convoy calls "a massive problem." (Photo: Katherine Schwartz)
Donations provided by locals can sometimes be seen going to waste, as volunteer groups here have no access to warehouse space. Something Marni Bosanquet from Aid Box Convoy calls “a massive problem.” (Photo: Katherine Schwartz)

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