Most people think of young, single men when they imagine the many migrants trying to secure illegal passage to the UK from northwestern France. But there are also many families including at least 250 children in the Grande-Synthe migrant camp near Dunkirk. During the day, a makeshift school tries to help them, but, according to volunteers, the children are not only living in terrible conditions, they also suffer from both emotional trauma and illness.
The Grande-Synthe migrant camp near Dunkirk, France has been criticised for its “appalling conditions”. Rain devastated the camp in late December and now the camp’s roughly 2,500 residents, mostly Iraqi Kurds, live in collapsing tents and filthy, freezing mud. However, despite these conditions, a by-law enacted by French officials on December 18 bans most aid deliveries from entering the camp. Only food and clothing can be carried in by hand.
MSF did obtain permission earlier this month to set up a new camp at a drier site nearby, but it won’t be completed for another month. Until then, thousands of people, including children and at least 8 infants, are stuck in appalling, unsanitary conditions.
“Most all of the kids here have fevers, coughing, diarrhea”
Sara Stanley, a British specialist in teaching and exploring philosophy with children, is a volunteer who works at the camp school room, the last structure built before the blockade prevented any new building materials. She described the terrible camp conditions that these kids live in.
After the heavy rains in December, the ground is covered with mud, which the kids play in. But it’s filthy - I’ve seen pools of vomit and excrement, rubbish and dead rats in it… not to mention the rat poison they put down. There are no washing facilities here so parents can’t even wash the mud off of their children.
Most of the kids here have fevers, coughing and diarrhea. People here burn anything to stay warm -- sometimes even plastic and the acrid smoke gives the children runny eyes, coughs and scratchy voices.There’s also children who risk carbon monoxide poisoning by staying in zipped up tents all day with gas heaters.
I’ve seen babies here who should be crawling, but they don’t have anywhere to learn to crawl. Physical development is linked to brain development; these kids are being permanently damaged by these conditions.
But even though the conditions are terrible, the refugee families feel safer in Dunkirk than Calais [Editor’s note: The Observers has reported frequently on the migrants living in Calais, including the xenophobia and police violence they face.] We find more children frequently, but we haven’t seen them because they hide in tents with their mothers, afraid to come out.
“These are traumatised children, they can be destructive”
A Belgian organisation built this school house, comprised of two rooms and a kitchen. I organised the space and helped add a furnace. During the night, families sleep in here, but during the day, it’s an open space for children.
It’s challenging. The kids here range freely, they don’t come at set times or with parents. We can’t have a formal learning situation. These are traumatised children, who’ve had everything taken away from them. When we give them toys, they don’t know what to do with them; they throw toys on the floor, they’re destructive.
One young mother brought in her three-year-old, Leah, who’d scream if the other kids got near her toys. Her mother told us that little girl lost her baby blanket on the journey. Since then, she cries all the time because she has nothing of her own, everything gets taken away from her.
Each day, we get about 20 kids between the ages of 3 and 11 or 12. One room is for the big children, another for the mothers and toddlers.
“These are people’s lives that the French authorities are playing with”
We’re currently waiting -- waiting out the blockade and waiting to see what happens with the new camp. I want to start a library but police won’t let me bring in bookshelves because of the aid blockade.
On Monday, there was a single day’s reprieve and volunteers stormed the camp with tents and sleeping bags. Now, however, volunteers have to smuggle anything else in through the woods. They continue to bring in supplies because there are people here at risk of dying. These are people’s lives that the French authorities are playing with. When weather gets worse, people -- especially the children -- will get critically ill.
The French media has reported that French authorities say that they do not want to encourage the creation of a permanent camp, because they fear that it will lead to an influx of migrants.