We've all heard of the Calais "jungle." We've read news stories of families uprooted from their homes, of shaky security at night, of the fires that burned as the French government cleared the camp in October.
But tucked into marshland by a Dunkirk forest, near the northern French town of Grande-Synthe are the remains of a refugee tent city we've heard very little about. Its conditions were described by the director of emergency medical aid charity MSF UK as "some of the worst that I have seen in 20 years of humanitarian work." In March, it was cleared. Documentary photographer Alice Aedy, working for humanitarian organization Help Refugees, saw it for herself.
"The most striking thing about the camp in Grande-Synthe was its location—a forest, with a residential road and huge, beautiful houses just opposite," she says. "The juxtaposition of these two worlds was truly shocking." Aedy would wonder how people who lived just down the road could turn a blind eye. "The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about 'the danger of a single story,'" she says. "I think the negative media narrative about refugees allows people to convince themselves that they are different. And when you believe that, it is easier to ignore their suffering."
Aedy says she's returned to both Calais and Dunkirk for the past eight months. In the time since the camp was cleared of its 2,000 or so inhabitants, she has been back to Grande-Synthe to document what has been left behind—the items set aside, discarded in the rush to leave, or put down when there wasn't room to cram anything else in. "The objects, set into the ground or submerged in overgrown plants, are like scars in the ground," she says. "They are a memory of the suffering that has happened here."
When you stand that close to a humanitarian crisis that has become tabloid fodder, a site of anxieties about migration, and a tool for political manipulation, you see its complexities and conflicts in 3D. How does it feel to look at both the media representation of refugee camps and the reality on the ground? "The media has created a dichotomy, that we have all heard: one between the 'economic migrant' and the 'refugee.' This creates a hierarchy based on nationality or ethnicity, between 'legitimate' and 'illegitimate' movers. On Wednesday, we heard that only Sudanese and Syrian unaccompanied minors would have the right to come to the UK—meanwhile children from Afghanistan, who grew up in a country at war, won't be given that same right...The media presents refugees as criminals, even though they are victims of war and poverty," she says.
The area has been locked and fenced, "with a ditch dug around it to avoid the forest reemerging as a refugee camp," and inhabitants moved to a new camp nearby. Remembering what once stood, waterlogged in and around the forest, feels like the least Aedy can do to remind people that Calais wasn't the only pressure point in a crisis we still haven't solved.
Follow Alice Aedy on Twitter.