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The Guardian | 12.04.2017

Homeless families prepare for night on streets, refusing to sleep in cramped sports halls they say are unsuitable for children

Several hundred refugees travelling with young children were involved in a protracted standoff with French riot police as chaos reigned in the aftermath of a devastating fire at the Dunkirk camp where they were living.

On Wednesday evening families were preparing to sleep on the road outside the ruined camp, spreading blankets at the feet of armed riot police who were barring the entrance to the Grande-Synthe camp, which was almost entirely destroyed in the fire on Monday night.

Children played on scooters and bicycles, so accustomed to the heavy-handed behaviour of local police that they barely noticed their presence.

Around 1,500 people were made homeless in the blaze and most lost belongings. Families, mostly from Iran and Iraq, had spent Tuesday night in the overcrowded Victor Hugo sports hall in the centre of Grande-Synthe, which had been opened as emergency accommodation by the town authorities. But they were refusing to sleep there again, complaining that there were very few toilets and the space was not suitable for families with children.

It was a mark of their desperation that they hoped conditions would be better in the camp than in the cramped sports hall.

Mohammed Mohammed (pictured), a taxi driver from northern Iraq, was sitting on the road by the line of police. With him were his wife, Sayran, and their three children: Peshint, four, Jielan, three, and two-month-old Junel, who was born in the camp. He said the family would be staying all night, waiting for the police to relent and let them into the site.

“We can’t stay in the gymnasium any more. It’s too crowded and noisy. There’s no space for the children and no one can sleep. It will be better here,” he said.

But beyond the police lines, there was very little prospect of secure accommodation. Only around 50 of the camp’s 300 wooden huts survived the fire, which followed an outbreak of violence between camp residents of different nationalities late on Monday.

One of two buildings housing the children’s centre also caught fire, and much of the kitchen space. Even the brown plastic municipal dustbins in the road leading to the camp were melted by the heat.

Dunkirk’s deputy prefect, Eric Etienne, a senior regional official, was tasked with explaining to residents that the camp was no longer habitable and was never going to be reopened.

“No one can enter the site,” he told the crowd. “You have to go back.” But the families could not be persuaded to leave. As the afternoon grew colder, parents lit fires, wrapped their children in sleeping bags and duvets, and waited for the police to let them through.

French authorities said they had provided accommodation in five sports halls for all the estimated 1,500 residents of the site who were displaced by the fire. But, on Wednesday morning, dozens of migrants could be seen sleeping on the roadside near the cemetery in Grande-Synthe.

A coach left the Victor Hugo sports hall on Wednesday lunchtime, taking around 70 people to accommodation centres in northern France. Local officials said these families would be given advice on how to apply for asylum in France and offered a place to sleep for several months. The authorities had planned to remove the remaining displaced people by the end of the week, but they had not anticipated such resistance.

Many of the refugees have family in the UK and were wary of being moved from the coast of France to other accommodation centres. They said they would rather remain in Dunkirk, even if they had to live among the ashes of the camp.

“We don’t know where they will take us from the sports hall,” Mohammed said. He was hoping to travel to the UK and join his brother in Northern Ireland. Many others were determined to stay in Dunkirk, which is heavily populated with people smugglers, so they could continue to try to make their way illegally to the UK.

Initially, the fire provided a useful solution for local authorities to the problem of worsening conditions in the camp. It had become severely overcrowded after the closure of the Calais refugee camp, which was becoming notorious for its violence.

France’s new interior minister, Matthias Fekl, said during a visit to Grand-Synthe that he would not allow the site to be rebuilt or reopened, and that better solutions needed to be found to the problem of large numbers of people arriving on the French coast in the hope of getting to the UK.

In a column for the local paper, La Voix du Nord, journalist Hervé Favre said it was convenient for rightwing politicians that the end of the Dunkirk camp had come as the apparent result of an arson attack by residents themselves, rather than a forced closure. “Migrants burning down a camp generously financed by the local authority, charities and the state: Marine Le Pen could not have dreamed of a better way of putting the issue of ‘migrant chaos’ back at the centre of her campaign,” he wrote.

But despite their determination to close the camps, the authorities are struggling with how to support the people who continue to make their way towards the French coastal ports in their hundreds.

Kamran (not his real name), a 16-year-old resident of the Dunkirk camp from Laghman province in Afghanistan, has been given family-reunification approval by the Home Office to join his father in east London, but has not yet been given details about how or when he will be transferred to the UK.

Kamran had been sleeping alongside 40 other Afghans on the floor of the kitchen in the camp, because there were not enough spaces in the huts for all the residents. Since Tuesday, he has been sleeping on the floor of another sports hall in Grande-Synthe. He said he found the fire, and the ensuing chaos and uncertainty, very alarming.

“We lost everything: clothes, shoes, mobile phone, mobile charger. Now I have just this shirt I’m wearing – everything else was burned,” said Kamran, who has been supported by the refugee charity Safe Passage. “I want the UK government to bring me to the UK as soon as possible. There is no camp. The sports hall is not comfortable. There is fighting every day.”

He said he was traumatised by having witnessed the violence and the blaze. “This week the camp burned down; I worry I might get caught in a fire. I am frightened.”

Lisa Veran from Doctors of the World, which is providing medical support to refugees in Dunkirk, said staff had treated a number of migrants who were injured in the fighting in the camp. She said she believed that several hundred men from Afghanistan had left the city and were sleeping rough near the coast, afraid to return to the city because of ongoing tensions with the Kurdish community.

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