Inside France's Forgotten Refugee Camp

Photographed by Jordi Oliver
Editor's note: Eve Warlow volunteered at the Dunkirk camp from 28th December, 2015 to 2nd January, 2016, and wrote about her experiences and observations for Refinery29 UK. The views expressed here are her own.

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.
Photographed by Jordi Oliver
We arrive at the camp around lunchtime on a relatively dry day. We drive from the L'Auberge des Migrants volunteer center in Calais, following a van stocked up with water, blankets and other supplies to be distributed. The camp is situated off a residential road, next to the Stade du Littoral. The French National Gendarmerie, or military police, guard the entrance and restrict vehicle access so we park in a nearby car park and walk in. On the road we are approached by a young couple who ask us for gas, and then by another two men with the same request. We are later told that cooking oil is in short supply, leaving people unable to cook for themselves and further reliant on the limited hot meals provided by volunteers. The Gendarmerie at the entrance ask us which organisation we are with before they let us in.

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

Once inside, we walk up a muddy path – the main artery through the camp. We pass queues for a wash station where people are washing pots, pans, clothes and shoes, as well as themselves. This, we learn, is the camp's only wash station. It has eight taps, one for every 375 people. We pass more queues, this time for the portaloos – there are 20 in total, which is one for every 150 people – and hear the incongruous sound of a trombone and laughter up ahead. A group of children of varying ages are crowding around some entertainers in colourful clothes and make up, playing an assortment of instruments. They represent Clowns Without Borders, a group of volunteers who work tirelessly to bring cheer and laughter to the children at the camps.
Photographed by Jordi Oliver
We locate the van and begin to unload it. We are instructed to take everything to the distribution point a short walk away and under no circumstances must we give anything out before we reach it. People approach as we unload, asking for shoes, blankets, water. As I walk with a bag full of blankets and a six pack of water bottles, a woman appears carrying a baby who can't be more than a year old. "Water, water," she says, pointing at the bottles and then at her child. I have to tell her she will need to collect them from the distribution point.

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.
Photographed by Jordi Oliver.
Once the van is empty, we are asked if we will stay on at the camp to help put tents up for new arrivals. We are introduced to three men in their late thirties who arrived in the night and are waiting for a tent to be brought from the distribution point. They tell us they are from Islamic State group-occupied Mosul in Iraq and had to leave because of the terrorists. It took them 33 days to get to Dunkirk. One asks how they can get to England. His sister and cousin are there and he is travelling to join them. We explain that England is closed and he asks for how long. "Perhaps in a few weeks England will open?" he asks hopefully. 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.

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.

When the volunteers hear this, they help us load our small car with as many tents as we can fit and we are soon on our way back to Dunkirk. But when we get back we aren't able to enter the camp. So we sit in the car and wait. An hour goes past and it is dark. Unlike the Jungle, there are no lights in this camp. I can't stop thinking about the men to whom we have promised a tent and the night they have ahead of them.

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.
Photographed by Jordi Oliver
On our way out of the camp, we pass a man and two small boys dragging a large tent ground sheet full of firewood. The smallest child repeatedly loses his grip and wood spills out into the mud. We stop to help them drag it to their tent and the gratitude they show us is in stark contrast to the contempt shown at that moment by the Gendarmerie towards the refugees and, it appeared, anyone helping them.

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.
Photographed by Jordi Oliver
I’m told that the day after our visit to Dunkirk, the camp experienced a 24-hour down pour which forced 200 people out of their tents. There has been more wet weather and stormy conditions since. With no tents allowed in, the volunteers have no way of rehousing them and with further wet weather to come, there will be many more people with nowhere to sleep.

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.

I ask what can be done. "We need to be able to get tents, sleeping bags and pallets into the camps and get people out of the mud," she says. Until the restrictions on access are lifted, her priority is finding somewhere warm and dry for the tent-less hundreds to sleep.

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.

Refinery29 has partnered with USA for UNHCR to support refugees around the world. You can make a difference with your donation here: UNrefugees.org/Refinery29.

Refinery29 is committed to telling the human story behind the headlines of the Syrian refugee crisis. To read the story of three Syrian women forced to flee violence and civil war, and how they have rebuilt their lives in Turkey, read "Daughters of Paradise" here. For full coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis, read more here.

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