12/04/2017 04:19 BST | Updated 12/04/2017 05:36 BST

The Fires In Dunkirk Were An Entirely Preventable Catastrophe


Fires in "the Jungle" in November 2016, Photograph by Benny Hunter

I am a volunteer with the charity Help Refugees who has been working on the ground in France since September last year. Help Refugees, alongside their partners Refugee Community Kitchen and L'Auberge des Migrants, have been working to provide food, clothing, firewood and other supplies to refugees in a camp in Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk in Northern France.

On Tuesday night, huge fires ravaged through the camp, destroying the homes of some 1,500 people. In Grande-Synthe, tensions between residents, which had been slowly rising for weeks, finally boiled over. During the evening, the frustrations of some residents living in the dire camp turned to scuffles between ethnic groups and violence. At around 10pm a fire broke out, catching shelters alight, before burning down the community kitchens and most of the the rest of the camp.

In the middle of the night, hundreds of families with young children, as well as women, men and unaccompanied minors, became suddenly homeless. At least 10 people have been reported injured from knife wounds and fighting, and one person hit by a car remains in critical condition. Some 900 people are now being housed in three separate gymnasiums in Dunkirk, while a further 600 people are unaccounted for, presumably sleeping outdoors. As charities and the authorities scramble to assist those in need, the question that needs to be answered is how is it that this happened?

It is clear to anyone who worked in the camp that the events of last night were the inevitable consequence of a complete failure in management. The intolerable living conditions that refugees in Grande-Synthe endured meant that tensions and violence were foreseeable and that the vulnerable groups living there - the women, the children, the disabled and the elderly - would be especially affected. Now, in a convenient turn of events for the French and British authorities, the burnt down camp will not be rebuilt, and the people who once lived there will be presumably moved on.

Since the eviction of the 'the Jungle' camp in nearby Calais in October last year, the population of Dunkirk had been steadily increasing. Yet authorities had been refusing to allow new shelters to be built, forcing as many as 14 people to sleep in shelters built to house half that number. At least a hundred people, including many underage, had previously been sleeping on the ground of the community kitchen buildings. While it had been previously agreed upon by the authorities that the camp would be allowed to stay until the end of August, no efforts had been made to find an appropriate long term solution to this.

The camp was at least partly controlled by a gang of people smugglers, who expected payment for access to the facilities provided by the state, and enforced debt repayment for taking food offered by charities, or accessing shelters and other services. Sexual abuse and rape of women and children by smugglers in return for blankets and food was widely reported in testimonies given by volunteers, medics, refugees and other officials in a tribunal in the UK in February. Yet still families with babies and toddlers, lone women and unaccompanied minors continued to live amongst the majority older male population, with minimal protections in place.

Forty days ago, Afeji, the association paid to run the camp, suddenly implemented a wrist-band policy, handing out wristbands to residents on a single arbitrary day and installing a new entry-gate system. Those outside of the camp on that day, or missed off the list were forced to smuggle themselves in and out of the camp whenever they wanted to walk to town, to shop at the supermarket or use the nearby WiFi hotspot. This of course also inhibited smugglers getting people to the UK. This had already led to clashes between camp residents and Afeji in March when a group of men rioted and burnt down the Afeji welcome office.

Little was done, either, by Afeji, to accommodate for the unaccompanied minors living in the camp, although legally obliged to identify these minors and refer them to child protection services. A census carried out just last week by Help Refugees, Dunkirk Legal Support Team and L'Auberge des Migrants found there to be a total of 120 unaccompanied minors living amongst adults in the camp. These children were especially affected by issues of overcrowding and risks of abuse and blatant and systemic negligence by the French authorities put all of them greatly at risk. The L'Auberge des Migrants Child Protection Team in Calais is now liaising with authorities and making use of this information to ensure that all of the children are accounted for and safe and will be continuing to demand appropriate accommodation and legal solutions for them.

Blame lies not only with the French, but also the British. The UK has increased border security, increased militarised border force patrols, and all the while refused to participate in the EU's mandatory resettlement scheme and closed existing humanitarian corridors for asylum such as the Dubs amendment. The charity Safe Passage identified at least 80 children with family in the UK living in Grande-Synthe - and so a legal right to be in the UK - while the government has done nothing to acknowledge them. These vulnerable children should be in the UK, but now they could be anywhere.

The only home had by some 1,500 men women and children has been reduced to ashes. This is a dire and deeply tragic situation, that was entirely preventable. It is important to remember, these are not criminals to be interned, but individuals experiencing the deepest tragedy of their lives, fleeing war, persecution and violence. They don't need our pity, but they deserve dignity and respect, because without this, their suffering will only be intensified.

And when tragic events unfold, they need our assistance also. The charities on the ground in Dunkirk will continue to provide people with food, hot tea, warm clothes and blankets, while working with authorities to find a long term solution for the homeless. However, we can only give out the items that are donated to us and so we need your support.

Help Refugees has set up an emergency fundraiser (please donate here) and we are calling for material donations (email:, the most urgent being sleeping bags, blankets, rucksacks, bottled water, tinned food and men's clothing.