‘The police just kept laughing and laughing when they saw our huts on fire.’

The real story behind the fire in Grande Synthe’s Linière refugee camp, Dunkirk. From 'Bordered Lives – How Europe fails refugees and migrants' by Hsiao-Hung Pai

January 15, 2018 · 13 min read
Photo by Maximiliano Valencia

Back in Grande Synthe’s Linière camp, life was becoming more and more difficult, as the police presence was constant and aggressive. Police raids were part of everyday life here. Evelyne Godfrey, of the Campaign to Close Campsfield, visited the Linière camp in August 2016 and reported that the French national police seemed to be controlling access to it day and night. ‘The police behaviour we observed at the Dunkirk camp contrasts sharply with reports that have come from Calais.’ Raids increased in spring 2017, resulting in clashes between the police and migrants.

With the French presidential election approaching, politicians once again focused public attention on the only state-funded camp in the region. In mid-March, French interior minister Bruno Le Roux said that the Linière camp must be ‘progressively’ dismantled as soon as possible. He said that the camp was reaching critical mass and could ‘act as a magnet for more migrants to come.’

Walking along the streets in the town of Grande Synthe in early April 2017, it would have been hard to miss the numerous election posters of Marine Le Pen. Her message was clear: her kind of France does not want refugees and migrants. Her supporters there did not care about the parallel world of migrants who had been living in the camp on the outskirts of town, kept away from public view. They did not know what happened to the migrants until they read it in the papers.

On 10 April, riot police went into the Linière camp following a fight between groups of Afghan and Kurdish migrants. The Kurds were the largest group in the camp while Afghan migrants had arrived later and had to sleep in the community canteen as no wooden huts were available. The huts were occupied randomly without the involvement of Afeji, which managed the camp. Severe overcrowding was causing fights to break out among the migrants while political attention, especially as the election approached, was mounting, making its complete closure more likely. To avoid accusations of mismanagement and thus keep its contract for another six months, however, Afeji had decided to reduce the size of the camp by taking down some huts, which only made the housing shortage worse.

According to Hamid and several migrants from Iraq (who weren’t involved in the fighting between Afghan and Kurdish migrants that day), it was the heavy-handed approach of the police that led to further clashes between migrants, and which culminated in the fires that broke out.

‘The police pushed people to fight each other,’ Hamid revealed. He explained: the police came in and asked all the families to leave the site, and kettled all the men inside the camp. The officers blocked both ends of the camp, so the migrants were all trapped inside. Then the police started urging the Afghans to fight the Kurds. ‘I saw them pushing the Afghans, saying, “Go, go, go, go fight them!” The police were physically pushing migrants to fight each other, from both ends of the camp. I was very scared and wasn’t allowed to get out.’

As the tension was raised by the police, several Afghan men were emboldened and started setting fire to a few of the wooden sheds occupied by Kurdish migrants. ‘People were trying to save their huts, but the police stopped them using water to put out the fire. When I tried to put out the fire, the police also stopped me. They didn’t let anyone put it out,’ said Hamid.

As the blaze went through the camp, he said that the police officers simply stood there, watching huts burning. ‘They did nothing. Just watched. The police didn’t call the firefighters right until the end, when almost the whole camp was burned down… Then they brought in several firefighters. It was too late.’ Hamid’s statement was confirmed by all those I talked to later. I also watched the video of the fire he sent me on WhatsApp on the night of the fire, and could not see any firefighters trying to put out the flames. No-one appeared to be helping. As the footage showed, migrants were left startled and helpless; all they could do was try to capture the image of the fire on their mobile phones, to send to their families and friends.

Hamid’s closest friend had his hut burned to the ground and lost everything, including his documents, in the fire. Hamid’s hut was one of 70 out of a total of 300 huts that survived the blaze.

‘The police like this. They like it that the camp is gone,’ Hamid said anxiously. He and other migrants were sent to gyms in the local area to spend the night. When asked what his plans were for the next days, he said, still shocked, ‘I have no idea. I can only think about this night.’

In the following days, more than 1,000 migrants were sheltered in local gymnasiums. When I went to see Hamid in Grande Synthe, he was placed in the Emile Dufour gym, next to the Anne Frank College, along with 400 other migrants. The building was surrounded by police vehicles. Tension and despair were in the air. Hamid looked exhausted and utterly dispirited. He had been kept awake by his anxiety about the future and had not slept till 7am. The gym had no electricity or other basic facilities, it was overcrowded, with 400 people sharing just two toilets. As the air indoors became stifling due to the lack of ventilation, some migrants decided to take their blankets with them and sleep outside the building. There was nowhere to rest, reflect and work out how to cope next.

Hamid couldn’t get over what had happened to the camp. For months, it had been his base in France. It was a social net to fall back on, where he could seek support, advice and friendship, and where he could return to recharge himself after failed attempts to board the trucks. It was where he could find shoulders to cry on. For him, the camp embodied the possibilities and hope for the future, a future that he hoped would be in London. While saddened and distressed, Hamid and his friends now had to plan their next move: they wanted to travel to Belgium. There was a camp near the lorry parks in Brussels where many migrants were staying, he said; they were all aiming to get to Britain. The only worry for Hamid was that, if he went on a truck from Brussels to Calais and got caught in Calais, it would not be easy to return to Belgium.

I asked him if he would consider claiming asylum in France, as pressure was mounting for the migrants to accept being sent to the reception and orientation centres (CAOs). He said he didn’t want to stay in France because of the lack of work and the problem of racism. His friend from Iraq told me they had experienced local racism on a daily basis during their time in Grande Synthe: people would shout abuse or make rude hand gestures at them from inside their cars as they drove past.

Anyhow, Hamid did not think he would have any chance in the asylum system. ‘It’s difficult for Iranians to be given papers here, because they see Iran as neither unsafe nor poor. They think there are no problems in Iran.’

At the same gym, I also met a young Kurdish man called Kiyan, who was deeply traumatized by what had happened. He told me that the Linière camp had become overcrowded, creating a lot of bitterness among the Afghan migrants who had not been given beds like everyone else. Although there was a fight between several Afghan and Kurdish migrants on 10 April, the situation should never have led to the fire that destroyed the camp. Kiyan said that the police had caused the disaster.

The police came and kept everyone in, except the families. When Kurdish people tried to get out of the camp, the police officers didn’t allow it. They suddenly started to teargas us. Everyone was running everywhere. I was scared for my life…

I felt my heart was going to stop beating. When the Afghan boys started setting fire to our huts, police officers were standing right behind them, laughing! The police just kept laughing and laughing when they saw our huts on fire. They did nothing to stop it. They did not call the firefighters. It was only at the end when the camp was almost burned down that the police informed the fire service. And only five or six firefighters were brought in. How could they possibly put out the fire? A Kurdish friend of mine was stabbed and suffered serious injuries. He wasn’t conscious and we had to get him to a hospital quickly. But when we took him to the gate and told the police, one of the officers lit up a lighter and waved it in my face, sneering. They didn’t want to call an ambulance for my friend. Me and several other men had to drag my friend to the hospital, along the motorway. Luckily, we knew someone with a car and he saw us on the motorway. We had already been walking for 15 minutes. He drove my friend to the hospital and he was saved. The police are brutal. They are like Daesh to us. Before I came to France, I never imagined French police to be so racist. My image of them was very friendly and civilized. I was totally wrong.

Kiyan very much wanted to move back to the burned-out camp because his sole aim was to reach Britain. He spoke good English, he had friends who had done well in Britain, and he had plans to study and work there. But it was not just that he knew more about Britain, it was also that what he had experienced in France convinced him he had to leave.

Hamid and his friends took me to the Victor Hugo gym where all the migrant families were given temporary shelter after the fire. As we arrived, we saw several coaches parked there, and police officers surrounding the area. Volunteers had set up a food stall, giving out lunches to migrants.

The authorities had decided to send these families to reception and orientation centres in other parts of the country. People were saying these could be in the south of France; there was a lot of fear and anxiety that they would be sent to a place too far away from the northern shores to ever be able to reach Britain.

On the pavement, a woman was sitting on a blanket, breastfeeding her baby. I recognized her as Akram’s sister, whom I had met the last time I visited the Linière camp. She looked sad and nervous, and could barely manage a smile when I greeted her. She simply said that she was worried and unhappy. Her family, like most migrant families from the camp, had little alternative but to accept being sent to reception centres. Some of them had family members in Britain and wanted to join them but, as Britain was refusing to let them in, many families would have to claim asylum in France, even if they did not want to. There was no choice: they simply couldn’t sleep rough in the woods like young men did, because they had babies and young children. For Akram’s sister, Grande Synthe’s Linière camp, with all its problems, was a well-established place where they were able to feed their children and have something to sleep on.

She told me Akram was inside the building. The gym was packed with families, some resting on mattresses, others looking stressed as they discussed their options. Children were running around, unaware of the uncertain destiny ahead of them. The place was so overcrowded that I couldn’t see Akram. Hamid introduced me to a friend of his, from Iraq, who had been living in Britain with his two children for eight years. He had applied for his wife to join him and she was currently in the camp waiting to get to the UK. He was clearly upset by what had happened and had come to see his wife. Sadly, she would now have to accept being transported to a reception centre even though she did not want to, because she simply could not live on the streets. ‘I have been waiting for a visa for my wife from the UK Home Office,’ the man said. ‘I have no idea what will happen to her, to us. I have no idea if my family can be reunited again.’

By the end of the day, 128 people, mostly families, at the Victor Hugo gym had been sent on coaches to the reception centres. The last coach left for Lens. Some families, not wanting to give up the hope of reaching Britain to join their relatives, had decided to walk back to the burned-down Linière camp, and tried to get back in the evening after the fire. The police, however, were now on guard round the clock, so that no-one could return to rebuild the camp. After all, the closure of the camp was what the police had wanted in the first place

Excerpt from Bordered Lives – How Europe fails refugees and migrants by Hsiao-Hung Pai (£9.99, PB, Jan-2018, New Internationalist

Available now: https://newint.org/books/politics/bordered-lives/

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