EUROPE REFUGEE CRISIS: SO CLOSE TO DEATH, SO CLOSE TO SAFETY

Authorities in France have started to demolish part of the refugee camp in Calais known as the ‘jungle’. Estimates as to the number of people who could be affected range from 800 to 3,455. With nowhere else to go, refugees could relocate to the camp at Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, where conditions are even worse than Calais. 

Bryar, a nurse from Iraq, is among the thousands of refugees already living in Grande-Synthe. In the last 18 months, Bryar has stared at death on more than one occasion. Certain death was the reason why he fled Iraq. He almost perished aboard a sinking inflatable boat in the Mediterranean. Upon reaching Europe, only scavenging for discarded food kept him from starvation. 

And now the 27-year-old nurse is in the midst of a squalid camp in northern France with little protection from the winter. Yet his story of tussles with death is not special or unique. It is the norm. Talk to anyone at the Grande-Synthe camp and they will all tell you similar tales. Bryar’s journey began in Iraq in the summer of 2014 when conflict came to his home city of Mosul. 

He had no choice but to flee with his family. Given his religious beliefs, staying behind would have meant certain death. Like thousands of others, they sought safety in a refugee camp in Turkey. But conditions in the camp were poor, so Bryar decided to leave for Europe with his sister in August last year. The first hurdle was getting to Greece by boat. 

More than 3,700 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean last year. More than 400 people have died so far this year. Bryar knows he was fortunate not to become another statistic. “It was really terrible, really dangerous. There was a hole and water kept coming in,” he recalls. “We kept on scooping it out with bottles. That saved our lives. It was night-time and the waves were big. We were all praying and shouting to God.” 

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. Travelling by foot and train, they made it to Germany, where his sister stayed. Bryar, however, continued the journey alone to northern France. Conditions in the Grande-Synthe camp are inhumane and unfit for human inhabitation. 

Mounds of rubbish lie unchecked. Rats and vermin abound. The mud is ankle deep and it is only getting worse. It is the largest camp in France outside of Calais, and its population continues to swell. It has grown from around 300 in September to around 3,000. “This is not a place to live as a human,” says Bryar. 

“It is not healthy. We sleep in a tent and when it rains, the rain comes in. “Every night I wake up with kidney pain, the ground is too hard.” We’re told there are around 300 children here, including a two-month-old baby. This is not where Bryar expected to be living. “I haven’t taken a shower for more than two weeks. You can’t brush your teeth, there is not enough clean water,” he says. 

“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.” The camp’s inhabitants, mostly Syrian and Iraqi Kurds who have fled conflict, are all seeking to make it to the UK. Bryar, who speaks excellent English, wants to study and already has family in the UK. 

“My aunt is in Manchester, she is crying every day, worried about me,” he explains. “I will try to get there any way I can, even if it means getting on a lorry. 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.” Until there are safe and legal routes for refugees and migrants to follow, they will continue to seek dangerous alternatives and will be exploited by people smugglers. 

“Myself and colleagues have visited Grande-Synthe on several occasions over the last few months. We have seen conditions deteriorate significantly,” says Alex Fraser, head of our refugee services. “You cannot begin to imagine the hardship that people are facing. We can label them as ‘refugees’ or ‘migrants’, but first and foremost they are human beings. 

“They deserve better than being left to flounder in unspeakably grim conditions. “We know there are around 100 families in the camp with a UK family connection, which is why they want to come here. “Right now their only option is a dangerous journey in the hands of smugglers. “We’re doing our utmost to ensure existing safe and legal routes are accessible and functioning. But this will require closer cooperation between French and UK authorities.” 

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 – read the full story 

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 

Meet the ‘mother of the jungle’ at Grande-Synthe 

The ‘swarm’ from Calais: a horror movie not showing near you
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