Refugee camp destroyed in northern France was chaotic, unsafe

A resident of the Grand-Synthe refugee camp exits one of the dozens of numbered wooden shelters in the camp that often housed six people or more. (Photo by Cole McCauley)

Story by Zoe Schaver

Video and photos by Cole McCauley

 GRANDE-SYNTHE, France — Before it burned to the ground, the refugee camp in Grande-Synthe, France, was a place from which the majority of its residents wanted desperately to escape.

Located just a half-mile from a shopping mall, the camp called La Linière comprised a few acres of land and a few hundred small, 10-foot-by-10-foot wooden shelters. At the entrance was a small white trailer where security officials would check that everyone entering the camp had a wristband or, in the case of volunteers, a passport.

Upon entering the camp, visitors passed a large metal structure under which migrants played cards, use their cell phones or listen to MP3 players. Groups of men and boys played soccer together, their shoes kicking up dirt. Beyond the entrance, the sound of saws could be heard where volunteers worked hard to cut up firewood. The wood was cut adjacent to a courtyard littered with junk, plastic and rusting metal where a medical clinic once operated but had since closed.

Other buildings in the camp, aside from rows and rows of numbered shelters, included the one-room Learning Center; the Women’s Center, where women and children could study and play without men present; the Children’s Center, complete with a playground out front; several free “community kitchens”; and an office trailer used by the Red Cross.

At the entrance to La Linière, a sign was posted that read: “Liberty, equality, brotherhood, sisterhood.”

“It’s funny, because as soon as you walk in (the camp), they’re lying to you,” said Arean Mohamed Sliman, a 22-year-old Kurdish refugee from Iraq.

***

Sliman had lived at La Linière for between two and three months before fighting among Afghan and Kurdish refugees and the camp’s security forces resulted in a blaze that destroyed more than half of the wooden shelters in the camp, rendering it unlivable.

Now, he lives in a sleeping bag under a tree in the forest of Grande-Synthe.

Before he fled Iraq, Sliman worked as an actor and model. He has more than 1,300 followers on his Facebook profile, which features a full portfolio of modeling photos as well as photos of his travels to Turkey, Iran, Italy, Germany and France.

Sliman is slim, with classic good looks, a wavy crop of black hair and a scruffy beard, cut short.

In Sliman’s hometown of Darbandikhan, where his mother still lives, he grew up playing basketball on the local competitive team and learning English by watching American movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “The Truman Show,” at one time watching as many as three films per day.

As a result, Sliman’s English is nearly perfect, unlike many others’ in the camp. He’s an outgoing guy and was well-known across La Linière, volunteering daily with an organization working in the camp called Kesha Niya. He said he considers the volunteers family.

“The big brother is who helps you with everything in my culture,” Sliman said. “The one who always supports you and helps you and gives you the things that you need. And I feel that about all of the volunteers.”

Kesha Niya, which means “no problem kitchen” in Sorani Kurdish, cooked three meals a day and provided wood for cooking and heating at individual shelters. The organization also built a “tea tent” as a social space for migrants to gather. But the organization, which had been in the Dunkirk camp since March 2016, left for good a week before the camp burned.

Marcel, who declined to give his last name, is a German volunteer for Kesha Niya. He said its grievances were mostly related to its relationship with the local government of Dunkirk, the French government and the security forces in the camp.

Afeji, a French nonprofit service organization aiming to “fight against all forms of exclusion,” was stationed in the camp to maintain security and assist refugees seeking asylum in France. But Marcel said Afeji was slow to respond to reported problems such as trafficking and smuggling in the camp, if the organization responded at all.

In late January, he said, police entered the camp to complete an “operation,” trying to find smugglers and criminals. Eventually, this escalated into the police shooting rubber bullets and using tear gas against camp residents.

Marcel said Kesha Niya’s volunteers were supposed to be evacuated by Afeji prior to the arrival of the police but were left behind and not warned about the planned operation.

Marcel, who led Kesha Niya’s volunteer efforts in the Grande-Synthe refugee camp, oversees the organization’s belongings being packed in a van as Kesha Niya prepares to leave the camp. (Photo by Cole McCauley)

Chris Afoakwah, a volunteer for Refugee Community Kitchen, said he was present for the riot and that he saw a wave of hundreds of migrants running through the camp, then an instant response with tear gas by the police. He said an office even caught on fire.

“No one knew what was going on,” Afoakwah said.

He also referred to “mafia influence” in the free community kitchens, where he said people with more money and power take advantage.

“We try to make it fair, to minimize conflict,” he said. “Flare-ups can happen over anything.”

After the riot and after a rash of sexual assaults in the camp, Afoakwah said RCK implemented a co-ed buddy system so no volunteer would ever be alone and female volunteers would be paired with men. The organization also made sure all volunteers have left the camp by 6 p.m. each day.

Marcel said Afeji and local officials were slow to respond to reports of sexual assaults, many of which happened in camp bathrooms where locks on the stall doors had been broken.

“(Kesha Niya’s) name means ‘no problem,’ but we had a lot of problems,” he said. “‘Never give up,’ I learned this from the Kurdish community, but if this is humanitarian aid, if this is the best that France can do, then OK, goodbye.”

Camp security officials destroyed Kesha Niya’s tea tent because sandwiches and cigarettes were being sold there, which was against the rules, Marcel said. He said there was also a lot of red tape to deal with when getting permission to use funds to buy food and gas or when applying for documentation for the volunteers.

A security official in the camp who declined to give his name emphasized that he and other security employees were doing the best they could with what they had.

“To protect (the refugees) we don’t have huge resources. We just try and be there for them, to support them in case of a problem, to direct them,” he said in French. “As some may think, we are not monsters — indeed, we have rules to follow, and sometimes we must say no, but it is for their own good and it is to prevent any overflow.”

As he spoke, another official standing nearby explained to a man waiting that he couldn’t enter the camp because he did not have a wristband. Security officials and camp volunteers alike said the wristbands were used to keep an accurate count of the camp’s population but that people would often lose or sell their wristbands and then request new ones, skewing the numbers.

Even before the fire that destroyed the camp, the official who was interviewed was skeptical about how long the camp would continue running, given organizational and security problems.

“We’ll have to see whether we will be able to handle and get rid of the issues we had in the past regarding the management of the camp,” he said.

***

During monthly meetings with Grande-Synthe’s City Hall and volunteer organizations involved in the camp, officials “sugarcoat the issues” in the camp, Marcel said.

“They don’t push us out, but they make the work we do really hard,” he said. “We leave this camp because this camp is s—.”

Kesha Niya and Afeji weren’t the only organizations operating in Dunkirk before the camp burned. Others included Care 4 Calais, Auberge des Migrants (Migrants’ Inn), Refugee Community Kitchen, Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus and the Red Cross.

Utopia 56, one of the largest refugee support organizations in France, worked in the Dunkirk camp when it first opened, building community kitchens, operating a laundry, providing clothes and blankets and teaching French and English, among other tasks.

According to the Utopia 56 website, the French government then announced its aim to close the camp, only allowing in families with children and even destroying some shelters. That led to the decision by Utopia 56 to leave the camp by the end of August 2016.

With Utopia56 and Kesha Niya gone, the Dunkirk camp was set to become even less organized, with various organizations coming into the camp on certain days to distribute food. Many volunteers came from the United Kingdom, France or Belgium.

For example, a French organization called Salam distributed hot meals three days a week to about 200 people in the camp. Volunteer Thomas Descharles had been volunteering in La Linière for more than a year before it burned.

“I can’t see people live in this misery,” he said.

***

Spray-painted messages on shelters and other buildings in the camp portrayed a sense of helplessness. “Where is human rights? Just tell me where it”; “I don’t need sex coz Afeji f—s me every day”; “My head is under water but I breathe fire.”

Some messages were optimistic, though: “Follow your dream” and “Anyway I have hope.”

One message, which read “UK Love,” is telling: most of the residents of La Linière wanted to declare asylum not in France, but in the United Kingdom.

During the night, families and children would steal away to stow themselves on trucks or ferries in the hope of getting into the country illegally.

The Dunkirk Legal Support Team is an all-volunteer organization that worked to connect refugees in the camp with lawyers in France and the U.K.

“We noticed a lack of legal information,” said Sabriya Guivy, a French woman who has a legal background and helped found the team in March 2016.

Guivy said many refugees are determined to go to the U.K., either because they have family there or because they have heard refugees are treated better there and given a place to stay and a small income.

It is true that the outlook for refugees is much different in the U.K. There, asylum seekers have the right to a work permit after six months of residency — not so in France. Additionally, they are given money to live on while they wait for their asylum cases to be reviewed. National identity cards, a virtual necessity to live in France, do not exist in the U.K., and it’s not legal to demand anyone’s identity documents unless they are suspected of a crime.

However, across four quarters in 2016, between 64 and 71 percent of asylum applications to the U.K. were rejected. Both France and the U.K. reject about two-thirds of asylum applicants, making them less likely to accept refugees than 22 of the 28 EU member countries.

The Legal Support Team focuses mostly on assisting minors with family established in the UK, since they are more likely to be approved for asylum there.

A major barrier for many refugees is the Dublin Regulation, originally established in 1990 and amended most recently in 2013. The regulation assigns responsibility for providing asylum to the first EU member state in which a refugee arrived, often determined by where the person was first fingerprinted.

“Anything that proves that you have been in another country than the one where you apply for asylum makes that member state responsible for treating your asylum claim,” Guivy said.

For that reason, the majority of La Linière’s residents — those who hoped to make it to the UK or elsewhere — sought to avoid being fingerprinted or leaving any trace of their presence in France.

“They don’t seem to realize what it will be like in the U.K.,” said Evelyn McGregor, a retired child psychologist and professor from Scotland who volunteers for the Legal Support Team.

She said it can take months to reconnect minors with their families in the U.K. and that even then, migrants are sometimes sent back to their home countries when they turn 18.

McGregor said she joined the legal team after her first visit to La Linière in early 2016.

“I wanted to answer the question, ‘What do people (in the camp) need?’” she said. “The answer is, they need to get out. So I went home, and I found an organization that helps people get out.”

***

Sliman’s father died in Iraq in 2013. He has two brothers: Sivan, a 21-year-old now living in Glasgow, Scotland, and Ahmed, an 8-year-old still living in Iraq with his mother. The next step in his long journey, in his mind, is to get to the U.K. by whatever means necessary, even though his brother Sivan has been rejected for asylum there.

After leaving Iraq in August 2016, Sliman traveled illegally to Turkey, where he was detained for seven days with about 200 other refugees in the same space. They were fed only once per day. Sliman said one officer repeatedly smoked in front of him, then threw the cigarette on the ground and ordered him to put it out.

“It was the worst seven days of my life,” Sliman said. “They were treating us like criminals, like animals.”

After being released, Sliman stayed in Turkey for two months before traveling in October to Athens, Greece, where he lived for three months. Upon acquiring a fake passport, he flew to Madrid in January, where he spent 40 hours without sleep and without money after leaving his funds with a friend who was then arrested.

“Without knowing anyone, without knowing where to go, I was just moving around the streets in Madrid,” he said. “I kept moving because I didn’t want to get arrested in Spain, I didn’t want my fingerprints there.”

Sliman’s brother, who was living in the U.K. at the time, bought him a bus ticket to Paris on the Internet. From Paris, he traveled to La Linière.

Since he left home, three of Sliman’s extended family members have died.

“You just see it on Facebook, and you have to call mom and say ‘What? Why is he dead? Why is she dead?’” he said.

“It’s hard. Everything is hard here. There are many, many racist people. They treat us as animals — worse than animals. It doesn’t make any sense.”


Racism has been present in every country he’s visited, Sliman said. In Greece, where he was once detained for having fake documents, he said an officer asked him why he left home.

“I said ‘Because there is war in my country. We are not safe,’” Sliman said.

“He said ‘Why are you not going back to your country if there is war? Why do you want to go out, to go to Europe?’ I said ‘Because I am better here, I will die there.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you go die there? Go die there, just like the others.’”

In France, where about two-fifths of the population speak English well enough to hold a conversation, Sliman said he is invariably turned away when he tries to communicate in English with people in public.

“They’re, like, scared of me,” he said.

“I don’t have French friends now, in Dunkirk. They don’t want to be our friends.”

Sliman, like everyone else in La Linière, lived in a small, bare wooden shack with no toilet, no water and no amenities of any kind.

“It feels like prison here,” he said. “That’s the Europe that they talk about? This is not Europe. We are in prison.”

One day, Sliman dreams of escaping to the UK and, from there, immigrating to the U.S., where he hopes that diversity is more welcomed. But it takes money to make that journey, and without the ability to work, he’s put those plans on hold.

For now, with the camp destroyed, Sliman sleeps on the ground under the trees with other refugees about a mile from the camp. He said he gets two meals a day if he’s lucky and if the police don’t bother him. Since he lost almost all his belongings in the fire, he’s been wearing the same clothes for several days. There are no kitchens here, no bathrooms to wash up in.

“I still wear the same clothes from the firing night,” he said in a message, referring to the night the camp caught fire. “It’s gonna be five days since I came back to Dunkirk and from that day I have not seen my face!”

 

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