Photos posted online this week show babies sleeping on the ground or, at best, on scraps of grubby cardboard — a testament to the appalling living conditions in a makeshift camp in northern France. Our Observer says that the families in this camp depend on the goodwill of volunteers to survive, and yet desperate people continue to arrive. Eight months after French authorities shut down the so-called Jungle camp in Calais to much fanfare, people are starting to return to the region, willing to endure extreme hardship in their desperation to cross the English Channel.
In late October 2016, French authorities dismantled the informal camp known as the Jungle in the northern French town of Calais. During the night of April 10, 2017, the refugee camp built by French NGO Médecins Sans Frontières in Grande-Synthe, a small town on the outskirts of Dunkirk, was largely destroyed by a fire.
The result of these two events is that there is no longer a place for refugees and migrants arriving in northern France to go to, despite the fact that the numbers of displaced people converging there are increasing. Some migrants did not want to stay in the reception centres where they were placed by French authorities after Calais was dismantled and so made their way back north, while other new arrivals are determined to get to the United Kingdom.
In the past few months, people have set up a makeshift camp in the woods that border Grande-Synthe. They live in tents and sleep in sleeping bags provided by NGOs and volunteers, who report that the local police regularly raid the area and confiscate these items.
According to the mayor of Grande-Synthe, Damien Carême, about 350 people live in this camp, including elderly people and pregnant women. There are also “between 30 and 50 children under the age of 12 and at least eight unaccompanied minors", says our Observer, Isis Mera, the founder of British NGO Help4Refugees that provides relief in northern France. She launched a petition calling for an end to the “inhumane” situation for refugees in the region.
“The babies get skin infections. They have lice and some even have scabies”
The parents of these children sent me these three photos.
The baby in this photo is a little girl who is eight months old. Her mother is from Afghanistan and I met her a year ago when she was pregnant and living in the camp in Calais. We grew very close and we keep in touch. She took this photo on July 3 and sent it to me.
The little boy in a red jacket is a three-year-old Kurdish boy.
On Thursday, I received a photo showing the camp after the police have come. Every week, the police come to the camp and destroy everything that the refugees have managed to get hold of.
Life in the camp is unbearable. The people living here don’t have access to toilets or running water. They have to wash themselves in the river or using rainwater. Families don’t have the resources to care for their children properly. The result is that the babies get skin infections and have stomach pains. They have lice. Some babies even have scabies.
"I met a six-year-old girl, born in a camp in Turkey, who has lived in refugee camps her entire life"
It goes without saying that these children don’t have any access to education. Some of them are the right age to be going to primary school but they are still illiterate. The other day, I met a family with a six-year-old girl. She was born in a camp in Turkey and has lived in refugee camps her entire life.
France and the United Kingdom are responsible for taking care of these children and take a huge risk in not doing so. These families are here to stay and these children will become the future of these European countries.
More than anything, these families want to make it to the UK. A small minority would be ready to settle in France if they had the opportunity, but it is safe to say that France doesn’t do much to make them want to. Both the authorities and the residents of Calais and Grande-Synthe look at these migrants and refugees with disdain and mistrust. Even though volunteers have organised to help them, most refugees and migrants don’t feel welcome here and think that they will receive better treatment on the other side of the channel.
A spokesperson for the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region told British daily The Independent that "shelter is systematically offered to minors" known to the NGO France Terre d’Asile. However, this NGO has recently come under fire for the way that it cares for unaccompanied minors in Paris.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: The horrible living conditions in Paris’ shelters for unaccompanied minors
On June 26, the administrative court in the northern French city of Lille ordered the administrative tribunal in Pas-de-Calais to set up daily patrols, to build water supplies, and to allow food to be distributed to refugees in Calais. The organisations providing food and water to migrants in Grande-Synthe hope that the order will set a legal precedent and similar measures will be established in their own area.