Update: since writing this blog, emailing and tweeting the Mayor of Grande-Synthe, Damien Carême has tweeted me to say:-
We will have a new one (Woman’s Centre) very soon ! I’ve found a foundation who will offer new women center to all women & children of La Liniere
What would it take for you to leave your home and your community, with your heavily pregnant wife, with nothing but the clothes on your back?
What would it take for you to empty your bank account of its savings? – which you will spend in its entirety on your journey, to pay traffickers to get you from one place to another.
For me, it would take Terror, Fear and a need to keep my family and children safe. A belief that wherever I would end up would be safer and better than where I have left.
What if where you ended up was in a wooden hut between a railway line and a motorway in a refugee camp in France?
I have just returned from a 48hour trip to the Refugee Camp La Linière in Grande-Synthe, Dunkirk. It is believed by volunteers on camp that there are around 1000 families currently living in this makeshift refugee camp, made up of wooden huts, in various states of repair, between a railway line and a motorway.
Overview of the history of the camp
This refugee camp took a lot of work to set up at the beginning of 2016, and it would appear the mayor of Grande-Synthe, Damien Carême had a lot to do with this camp existing and insisting it at least met minimum International Humanitarian Standards. It appears that it was not an easy task as the French government did not want any such camp to exist, instead trying to ignore the terrible conditions in the former Basroch Camp, that had been erected on a flood plain, single skin donated tents, mud, raw sewage, rat infested conditions. In March 2016, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) donated most of the money for camp La Linière to be built with the rest being input by the Town Hall of Grande-Synthe. The camp originally catered for up to 2,500 migrants. There were lots of news articles published, celebrating the facilities; a basic sanitation infrastructure, wooden shelters, areas described as neighbourhoods each with their own toilets and showers with hot water, community living areas, kitchens, a school, children’s centre and a playground. Sounds fantastic!! In comparison to Basroch Camp it definitely was. One of the greatest elements of this new camp was there seemed to be an understanding of what was needed, lead by MSF cultural mediators, that people would be free to come and go. “This camp must not be a closed camp” emphasised Andre Jincq, MSF progam manager, in March 2016.
La Linière Now
Fast forward to January 2017, 10 months later, the numbers are thought to be nearer to 1000 families living in what is left of the wooden huts as if you leave camp and vacate your hut for longer than 48hrs your hut is likely to be demolished. The MSF logistics team designed the camp and it appeared their cultural mediators had a sound understanding of what was needed for the continued success of the camp to ensure it continued to meet minimum International Humanitarian Standards. MSF was not hired to continue to oversee the camp or maintain the camp infrastructure. Instead the Town Hall and Mayor of Grande-Synthe chose other groups to take on those roles.
It is hard to know whether the deterioration of the camp is due to the number of different groups chosen to manage this camp – it is hard to know who is coordinating as there seems to be representations from many organisations and it has been mentioned that several organisations including Utopia 56, La Vie Active and Afeji have or are managing the site, overseen by Mayor Damien Carême. It is obvious to me that for a camp to operate well it needs one experienced organisation at the forefront of the operation, making decisions and coordinating to the best interests of the community living there. The problem when many organisations come together is that things are missed, direction and accountability is hard to determine.
It was mentioned by several volunteers that there is pressure from the French government to disperse the camp in a similar way to the Calais Jungle (which although the media have now stopped reporting about, we know there have been huge knock on effects from dispersing a camp of 10,000 refugees – many of whom are now sleeping rough in Paris). Just because you take a camp down doesn’t suddenly mean everyone skips off into the sunset, gets re-homed and lives happily ever after.
Maybe the pressure comes from the Grande- Synthe Town Hall itself who it appears must oversee what is and isn’t allowed to exist on camp? Whoever is responsible, the camp is starting to fall apart at the seams, despite the wonderful volunteers on-site working for the many different organisations that dedicate many hours to supporting the families and their children.
Conflicting Actions by those employed to protect the camp
Despite MSF recognising the importance of the residents of the camp being free to come and go when the camp was first erected in March 2016, the actions of those contracted to provide security and maintenance within this community now, instructed by the Town Hall, is actually causing terrible problems within the camp. A wristband system has now been introduced to prevent new arrivals from setting up here. Consider if a hut is removed every time one is vacated in an attempt to slowly close the camp down, what happens to those families that have left if their attempt to move on to their next destination fails?
When families leave they are often unsuccessful in their next journey. Many families want to get to the UK, but fail. At night Traffickers turn up, asking for around £3,000 per person in exchange for ‘getting them on the back of a lorry’. Families who are unsuccessful in their journey return to camp, their savings gone, to find their accommodation no longer exists. This appeared to be something that MSF recognised was so important to those on camp, that there was a freedom to come and go. No-one on the camp wants to be there, they are all of course searching for a better life, better support, more permanent accommodation and a future for themselves and their family.
Homeless in a refugee camp
There are thought to be currently around 100 homeless people within the refugee camp. Homeless within a refugee camp! The irony! – the homeless people don’t even have access to a small wooden hut and heater. The end result that the ‘once safe’ community areas are slowly being vandalised and broken into, whatever can be burned for warmth is burned and suddenly the community areas that mean so much to the remaining families are no longer the safe space that they once were. The camp is sadly no longer meeting minimum International Humanitarian Standards, far from it.
Whilst we were at La Linière this weekend we watched the devastation unfold within the community as the Woman’s Centre was burned down overnight on Friday 06th January. So many families, woman and children were so sad that the community space that they accessed support, a little bit of self care, someone to play with their children, someone to talk to, somewhere to shelter from the awful weather, somewhere to warm up, somewhere to cook, charge their phones – burned to the ground.
Within every community there are a minority of angry people that unfortunately don’t consider the effects of their actions on the community around them. There was lots of speculation about who, why and what had caused the Woman’s Centre to burn down. The lovely volunteers at The Woman’s Centre had feared something like this would happen as the homeless within the camp were frequently breaking in to find shelter and warmth. They had already begun to lock the few comforts they had in the main space away at night in the lorry container on the side. They had collected donations to create somewhere for mums to feed their babies, to rest comfortably with their young families. Devastatingly, this container on the side was also broken into and burned down, including all of the new donations inside. The truth is, it doesn’t matter why – angry and hurt people will find an outlet and it won’t always be a healthy outlet. In these conditions, its hardly surprising. The important thing is, that for this camp to continue to meet the basic minimum International Humanitarian Standards a new Woman’s Centre must be allowed to be built. The Town Hall must approve a new structure.
When we left on Saturday evening, the shell-shocked young volunteers that are keeping the woman’s centre going were unsure how long they would be needed on the camp now. Their future support on the camp uncertain. They told us they would have to wait for permission from the Town Hall for another structure to be secured. They were worried this may not happen.
Call To Action
Please join me and the rest of the Infant Feeding Team in contacting the Mayor of Grande-Synthe, Damien Carême with a Call to Action to continue to meet the minimum International Standards and replace the only safe community space for woman and children on site.
Email him:firstname.lastname@example.org and ask him to ensure another safe community space is provided for woman and children within the camp.
If you would like to donate money to the organisation I volunteered with, please donate here:-
We will continue to support the Camp at La Linière with infant feeding and will campaign until the Woman’s Centre is replaced.