Inside Dunkirk’s new refugee camp

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Inside Dunkirk’s new refugee camp

A specially built camp gives refugees shelter, but for how long?, asks Sarah Shearman.


Simon, a Kurd from Iraq, in his new shelter. by Sarah Shearman

In Grand-Synthe, in Dunkirk in Northern France, a group of volunteers from Europe and refugees from the Middle East are busy building. Together they are building shelters. This is the only specially built migrant camp in Northern France. In Northern France there are thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. They are running away from violence, terror, and war. They live in terrible conditions and hope that one day they will go to the UK.

This new camp has hundreds of wooden shelters for 2,500 people. It is also the first camp to be good enough for international humanitarian standards. Most of the refugees are Kurds from Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Before they lived in very bad conditions in another camp in Grand-Synthe, called the ‘forgotten Jungle’. The camp in Calais is called the “Jungle”.

Many refugees decided to stay in the Grand-Synthe Jungle because it was quieter than the Jungle camp in Calais. But the living conditions in Grand-Synthe were much worse. There were floods and it did not have enough water points and toilets for its 3,000 refugees. There was illness and rats. The people there with about 250 children, were sleeping in the winter in bad tents and shelters. The police stopped aid workers from bringing them food. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said the conditions were ‘inhumane’.

The camp was so bad that Grand-Synthe’s Mayor, Damien Carême, asked MSF to help find money and make a new camp. The French government did not want it. The Grand-Synthe Jungle was closed in early March before the new one was finished because the health risks there were so bad.

I visited the camp a week after it opened. I saw that people felt better. People play football, a barber gives men haircuts, people play music and talk on their phones, a woman is learning to cycle – that was impossible in the thick mud of the old camp. Children eat cake and fruit at a first birthday party for Oscar, one of the camp’s youngest refugees. The conditions are better here but the refugees I speak to do not think their situation is better. Of course, they do not want to be in a refugee camp.


Refugees play football. Sarah Shearman

A married couple, Ali and Bafrin* invite me into their shelter. We sit on the floor on thin blankets and Ali shows me his British passport. He is a Kurd from Rayna, in Iraq, and a British citizen. He lived in Huddersfield and got British citizenship and went back home to get his wife. Together, they crossed Europe to France. But like many people in the camp, she had problems with her application for asylum. So Ali is waiting with her. She got pregnant in the old camp in Grande-Synthe and she is now six months pregnant. Ali says the new camp is better than the Grande-Synthe Jungle, but he is worried about his wife’s health. It is very uncomfortable for a pregnant woman to sleep on a hard floor with thin blankets.

In another shelter Simon, another Kurd who wants to go back to the UK, makes tea and breakfast for some of the volunteers. He uses the gas stove inside his shelter. He worked in a kebab shop in Croydon in London for many years and he went home to Iraq to see his dying father. Now he is trying to get back to the UK. He lived in the Grand-Synthe Jungle for about three months. He invited families into the stronger shelter he built to keep them dry when the weather was bad. ‘I felt bad in the last camp, sad, and unhappy,’ he tells me. ‘It was a very cold and dirty place, no shower and no toilet. This is better than the last place,’ he says. He feels safer here too. In the last camp, people were shot and stabbed because of the mafia and smugglers there. ‘Now we are fine. No trouble, no mafia.’ Now the French police are at the entrance, and ask volunteers for ID to stop the smugglers.

There is electricity, showers, and toilets in the camp. A French organization called Utopia 56 are looking after the camp with the help of many volunteer groups, including a group from Bristol - the Aid Box Convoy. Now that Utopia 56 are looking after the camp, the police check who is coming in and it is more difficult to get in. In the last camp, people gave things to refugees themselves, but Utopia 56 are trying to organise this. When I am at the entrance of the camp, they stop a man with a car full of bread and rolls in open boxes. The refugees in the new camp can come and go as they want. They don’t need to register their finger prints. But the new camp is further away from the town and between a busy road and a railway and people feel more isolated.

Ivana is a Bosnian volunteer and a refugee herself. She says they have lost the feeling of being in a group that they had in the last camp. I meet Ivana in one of the shelters. She is drinking sweet tea and smoking cigarettes with a group of Kurdish men. One of the mugs for the tea has a picture of a young Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on it. We all laugh about it.

Ivana says, ‘In the Jungle we said, “Jungle bad, people good”. The new camp is “no good, but people good,”’. A few of the men agree, ‘camp no good.’

The shelters have one or two small windows, a little bigger than letter boxes. Some of the refugees are building porches to make the camp feel more communal and there are tents around them. ‘This is a box,’ says Ivana about the shelter. ‘I am surprised they are so positive. They have to be, I suppose.’


A poster of Justin Bieber in the new camp. Sarah Shearman

People have also started to make the camp brighter with graffiti, flags, and posters like in the Calais Jungle. There is a poster of Justin Bieber on one of the shelters. Faris lives in the shelter with his mother. They are Bidoon people from Kuwait. Faris says the poster is his brother’s. His brother went to the UK in the back of a lorry.

Faris ran away from Kuwait, where his father was persecuted as a political prisoner. He moved to Syria and then Lebanon. Then he made the dangerous journey by boat to Greece, and walked across Europe. He hopes to be with his father, sister, and brother in the UK. But his mother is ill and he does not know when or if they will get to the UK. ‘I miss my family. I don’t feel I am human when my family are away from me,’ he says. “We were together the last time six years ago.”

When I meet Faris, he is playing football in what he calls the Arab part of the camp. It has three shelters. ‘This is not better than the Jungle. It’s better because there is less mud, the shelter is good, it’s less cold, but this is like prison,’ he says.


Faris has moved into a new shelter with his mother. Sarah Shearman Johanna Verpoort is a Belgian volunteer. She has spent many months in Dunkirk. She says things are getting better. There are solar panels on the shelters and a kitchen is nearly ready. She says the camp is now full, and the volunteers are working to get people in tents into shelters. But not everyone from the last camp came to the new one and she is worried that there are groups of refugees sleeping outside.

French authorities have looked at the camp, and they agreed it meets the UN standards to keep it open, but it is not certain how long for. The plan was for the specially built camp to be there for a short time. For refugees living there, conditions are better but they are still in a terrible situation. And this means they will try and make the dangerous journey to the UK in the back of a lorry.

‘Things will only be better here when everyone, like me, can live in the UK,’ says Faris. Simon agrees: ‘We don’t want to stay here, we want to go to England.’

*They are not the real surnames


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).