On one side of the road, a French suburban estate with large detached houses and family cars in pristine driveways. On the other side of the road, armed police stand in front of a dirt track. Scores of muddied refugees, poorly dressed against the wet winter weather, mingle around them. Welcome to Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, a place where worlds collide.
The juxtaposition of everyday suburban life against the lives of thousands fleeing conflict and persecution is stark. Conditions in the camp are inhumane. There are just 30 toilets for a population of around 3,000 – one toilet for every 100 people. There are only two drinking water stations and no showers at the time of writing.
When we visited before Christmas, it had not rained for several days, yet the mud was still ankle deep. “This is not a place to live as a human,” says Bryar, a nurse from Iraq. “It is not healthy. We sleep in a tent and when it rains, the rain comes in.” The camp’s inhabitants are largely Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, forced to flee bloody violence in their respective countries.
Bryar, from Mosul, followed the same path through Europe as more than one million other refugees and migrants. He only just survived crossing the Mediterranean on an inflatable boat by scooping out seawater pouring into the vessel through a hole. Things didn’t get much easier on land. He was forced to eat discarded food to survive, while a travelling companion resorted to drinking his own urine.
And now, Bryar finds himself stuck at Grande-Synthe, in-between worlds. “I haven’t taken a shower for more than two weeks. You can’t brush your teeth, there is not enough clean water,” says the 27-year-old. As a nurse, he knows the importance of personal hygiene.
“You live life step by step. When you have a good life, you think about your health. But right now I am so far from a healthy life,” he says. Bryar has been separated from his family. His father, too frail to make the journey across Europe, is in a refugee camp in Turkey. His sister sought refuge in Germany. Given that his English is almost word-perfect, Bryar’s desire is to make it to the UK.
He already has an aunt in Manchester. “I will try to get there any way I can, even if it means getting on a lorry,” he says. “It’s dangerous, but what can we do? There’s no other way. “We are knocking on Britain’s door, but you are not opening it.” A child rolls a discarded plastic drum through the mud while another chases after him. Playtime in Grande-Synthe.
One thing that sets this camp apart from others is the high number of families with children. We’re told there are around 300 children here, including a two-month-old baby. “You hear the women crying at night. They say it is better to die than to live in this place,” says Roonak. The 52-year-old is known as the ‘mother of the camp’ and it’s easy to see why.
In a wooden hut, which is missing two walls, she stands over a steaming pot of stew on a makeshift stove fuelled by coal and wood. “Kurdish bean stew,” she says smiling, before reeling off the list of ingredients. There’s a small crowd of people around the hut, eager for a serving of food.
“I cook for everyone because all the Kurdish people are my family. There’s nowhere else to cook, so we have to help each other. “It’s hard in the camp. There’s nowhere to wash and it’s so cold at night. I never thought I would be living somewhere like this. “But in a way I feel safe here. There are no guns, no bloodshed.”
Roonak, speaking through her son as a translator, is considered in her responses. People fall silent when she speaks. “We want to get out of this place. We are not uneducated. We have morals,” she says. “It is not about this muddy place or these dirty clothes that we wear. Under these clothes are flesh and bones. We are all the same. We hate the label ‘refugee’. We are people. “But we are refugees because of war. We want peace, we want to find a place to live.”
Like everyone else in the camp, she wants to make it to the UK. But unlike others, she wants to find a legal way of getting there with her sons. Karl Pike, policy and advocacy manager at the British Red Cross, says: “Right now the rules don’t offer a clear, safe and legal route for people who have been forced to flee.
“Instead, young families are living near a major road in a camp where smugglers exploit vulnerability and tell refugees they can get on to a lorry and make it to the UK. “Dangerous journeys are being forced upon desperate people because the other options either aren’t accessible or they don’t exist.”
The Dublin Regulation – an EU law that sets out member states’ responsibilities around asylum seeker applications – offers some degree of help for people with family already in the UK. But too often the procedure is not implemented and refugees are not made aware of their rights. “The regulation is currently being reviewed by the UNHCR as it isn’t working as it should be.
The UK’s family reunion rules are also restrictive,” adds Karl. “The British Red Cross is campaigning to change policies in the UK and the wider EU to expand safe and legal routes – starting with refugee family reunion.”
"Together with the French Red Cross, we have given out around 1,300 bags of aid to refugees in five camps across northern France, including Grande-Synthe.The French Red Cross is set to begin longer-term work helping refugees in camps across northern France Please donate to our Refugee Crisis Appeal to support our relief work".