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Authorities in the Nord department, France's northernmost administrative district, have approved plans to build a semi-permanent camp for refugees and migrants in the commune of Grande-Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk. Scheduled to open in mid-February, the new camp will offer alternative shelter to the 2,500 people who are currently living in a marshland slum on the outskirts of town.
Over the weekend, VICE News visited the makeshift camp at Grande-Synthe to see firsthand how support groups and the public authorities are working to tackle the crisis.
Getting up to face the day is nothing short of a struggle for those who live in the slum-like settlement of Grande-Synthe. On a recent night, heavy gales destroyed the roof of the tiny school built by volunteers. Huge puddles of muddy water line the slum's waterlogged paths, where the camp's early risers are already knee-deep in sludge.
A few patched-up tents sit on higher ground, protected for now. Others sink into the quagmire, surrounded by moats of mud.
"Lots of tents are resting on layers of fabric, cardboard, and old sleeping bags," explained Arthur, a volunteer in his twenties from the southeast of France. Describing himself as an "independent volunteer," Arthur said that he arrived in Grande-Synthe a week ago to help "fix up the camp, run the school, and distribute aid."
Some 2,500 people — many of them Kurds and Iraqis, but also Iranian, Kuwaiti, and Vietnamese migrants and refugees — currently live in squalid conditions inside the camp. "There's always something that needs doing," he added.
Built on a patch of wetland, the camp is nestled between a residential area and the A16 motorway that connects Dunkirk to the port city of Calais. It is seen as a strategic location by the people smugglers who operate around the port of Dunkirk and on a nearby service area. Established in 2006, the camp housed a maximum of 80 people until last fall.
For the past few weeks, three police trucks have been stationed outside the camp, monitoring comings and goings. In October, local residents filed a complaint after allegedly hearing shots fired in the area. At the time, angry residents launched a petition urging the mayor of Grande-Synthe to carry out an "urgent intervention."
"Even though there's lots going on inside the camp, it remains a nuisance," said 32-year-old who identified himself as Mehdi, who lives a few streets away from the settlement. Tired of the constant police and media presence, most local residents make a run for their houses as soon as they get home at night, keen to avoid reporters.
"We try to help," said a woman named Maryam, who also lives next door to the slum, "but we're overwhelmed by all this."
In the early morning, light bathes every muddy corner of the camp.
"You're here early, most of the families aren't up yet," said Mohammed, a photographer working with international humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders (MSF). A refugee from the Syrian city of Damascus, Mohammed runs the Voices from the Road Facebook page, a platform that allows migrants to "share snapshots of their lives and their journeys." Setting up his tripod in a puddle of sludge, Mohammed pointed to the large pond that has accumulated in the middle of the camp.
"It's worse this week," he noted.
At around 10am, the clanking of pans and the sound of children coughing starts to rise up from the tents. Some of the tents are reinforced with old concert posters. One of them is propped up by a horizontal poster of Justin Bieber. Volunteers run around the camp, distributing aid. One man hands out bottles of hand sanitizer, while another greets three police officers that are patrolling the slum's muddy walkways.
Migrants and their children help unload the trucks. (Photo by Pierre-Louis Caron/VICE News)
Two Belgian trucks carrying wood are let through. Wood is a vital commodity for the camp residents, who use it to cook and to stay warm. The trucks are emptied almost as soon as they arrive, and the wood is carted off in bags and strollers.
Arms filled with logs, a young man chats in English with British volunteers. K.M., 25, is one of 30 or so Iranians living in the camp.
"We arrived here around two months ago. We left eastern Iran because life was too hard for us," he said somberly. Days after they arrived in the camp, he and seven of his friends were threatened by a group of people smugglers. "They said we had to pay to stay here, or we'd be kicked out."
People smugglers gravitate to the camp, and the local police force has been forced to intervene several times already. On November 30, officers searching two UK-bound vehicles with British number plates found a large number of migrants on board and large sums of cash.
Despite the trafficking activities, the camp remains home to many migrants and refugees. "There is a communal tent, two distribution points, a school that is also used as a movie theater and theater," said K.M. At the entrance of the camp are several volunteer-run facilities.
"It's a long-lasting temporary solution," said MSF coordinator Michel Janssens. Migrants, he said, were struggling to cope with the winter conditions. Speaking to VICE News by the MSF dispensary, which is run in tandem with Doctors of the World, Janssens explained that the camp cannot meet residents' most basic needs.
"We have 20 latrines for over 2,000 people — we need ten times more," he noted.
Already on site in Calais' notorious "Jungle" camp since September 2015, MSF extended its intervention to include the camp in Grande-Synthe "out of necessity," said Janssens. "We have an outbreak of scabies, but also diarrhea and respiratory infections."
One of Janssens's colleagues pointed out the need to replace around 20 tents. Over the past few weeks, officers posted at the camp entrance have been conducting systematic searches of anyone entering the camp, including journalists and volunteers. Authorities have banned visitors from bringing tents or construction materials — including tools, lumber, pallets — to prevent newcomers from settling within the camp.
The sudden rise in the camp's population can be explained by several factors.
"There are too many problems in Calais. It makes cohabitation difficult," confided Issa, a 20-year-old Kurdish migrant who lives in the camp with his mother and his four brothers. Located 25 miles to the west of Grande-Synthe, the Jungle camp in Calais is just as unhealthy.
"It's easier to cross over from here than it is from Calais," said K.M., who said he carried his passport around with him in a plastic folder. In a whisper, K.M. confided that he was planning to attempt a UK crossing that night "in a refrigerated truck or a cargo of vegetables."
The recent evacuation of the nearby Téteghem camp in November 2015, which left 250 migrants with nowhere to go, has only made the problem worse.
To tackle with the deteriorating conditions on site, MSF has helped local authorities with plans to build a new camp that would meet international standards. The new initiative is the brainchild of Damien Carême, Grande-Synthe's Green Party mayor. Back in December, Carême warned that the camp could soon be providing shelter to "10,000 migrants, perhaps even 20,000."
"We suggested building a humanitarian camp worthy of the name, with 500 heated tents," explained Janssens, saying that MSF would only play a logistical role and would not run the future facility. Even if a new camp is built, the authorities will still have to convince migrants to move there. "The camp must under no circumstances become a prison," he added, "because the people here do not trust government initiatives — for example, having their fingerprints taken."
It was almost noon when Olivier Caremelle, Carême's chief of cabinet, left the camp after meeting with several of the humanitarian organizations providing aid to the inhabitants. On his yellow vest, the words "Town of Grande-Synthe" are written in French, Arabic, Farsi, and Vietnamese. When asked whether plans to build a new camp were progressing, Caremelle noted "positive developments" but warned that many details still needed to be ironed out.
"We still need to know who will underwrite and run this camp," he said, which is expected to cost more than a million dollars apart from the costs of running it.
Despite enjoying an endorsement from French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, the mayor's initiative was initially met with lack of support from some factions, including the Nord prefecture, who refused to green light the new camp for "security reasons." The proposed site, they argued, is too close to the A16 motorway and to railway tracks.
Dunkirk's Deputy Prefect Henri Jean vetoed the plans on January 4, following a meeting with the mayor of Grande-Synthe. Jean, who said the camp had been set up "for no other reason than to smuggle illegal migrants into the UK," argued the settlement should be shut down "as quickly as possible."
Two other meetings were subsequently held between the Nord prefecture, the Grande-Synthe City Hall, representatives from the local fire station, and MSF to try and find consensus. In the end, authorities succeeded in opening up 300 beds for migrants needing urgent accommodation.
Following another meeting on Monday, the government finally gave the go-ahead for plans to erect heated tents around temporary structures housing bathrooms.
Contacted by VICE News on Monday, the Grande-Synthe mayor's office confirmed that it had been given the official green light, but noted that "many details still need to be ironed out."
Construction work at the site is expected to last four to five weeks, the mayor's office said.
At least 19 migrants died in the north of France in 2015 — many of them in and around Calais. On December 28, a migrant was found dead in the trailer of a Czech truck on a service area in Grande-Synthe.
Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter: @pierrelouis_c