Refugees in Northern France: “These Conditions are Inhumane”

Elisabeth Griot/MSF

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) logistician Nicolas Robichez is in Grande-Synthe, France, where more than 2,000 refugees, mostly Kurdish, are currently living in precarious, and escalating, conditions.

"I first came to Grande-Synthe camp, near Dunkirk, two months ago, with two MSF colleagues—a doctor and our project coordinator. There were about 800 refugees there then, with just a handful of children. But now it leaps out at you: there are more and more families, more and more young children—I’d say there are over 100 now. Volunteers have set up a small school in the camp with classes taken by a Kurdish teacher. But how long will the teacher be there? Like all the refugees here, he dreams of one thing only: of making it to England. If he succeeds, who will take over from him?

Word has it in Calais—that place full of fences and barbed wire—that things are better up towards Dunkirk. It’s only a rumor, but people who were in Calais before have come here in the hope of crossing to England. The population of the camp has more than doubled—there are an estimated 2,000 people here now. Mostly they are Kurds from Iran, Syria, and Iraq, but there are also Kuwaitis and Vietnamese.

The increase in numbers is partly due to new arrivals, but also because the camp at Teteghem, 10 kilometers [6 miles] away, has been dismantled by the authorities. In mid-November, the 250 refugees in Teteghem were taken to holiday camps or transit centers in Savoie, central France, and in les Landes [on the Atlantic coast]. Some came here—I saw them arrive barefoot. What they want is to be close to England.

You wouldn’t believe what it’s like here. People are living surrounded by mud and puddles of water. They are sleeping in ultra-thin tents in the middle of all this filth. Volunteers have constructed some shelters and set up a large tent. Many people—either as individuals, or as volunteers with charities, both new and established—want to help the migrants, so they come to Grande-Synthe, especially at weekends. You see lots of English people, as well as Belgians, Germans, Dutch, and French. They bring all kinds of donations—tents, food, clothing—but it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the needs.

As a result, all over the muddy ground you see unusable clothes and food, which attracts rats. On our advice, authorities are carrying out two rat-exterminating operations per week, putting the poison in holes so that it’s out of the reach of the children.

So many things have been discarded in the mud. Before setting up the clinic where we are doing medical consultations, we had to use a mechanical digger to clear the ground of all the detritus. 

To put a stop to the chaos surrounding the distribution of all the aid, we’ve set up a small distribution center. It’s an open shipping container with a canopy, which allows for organized distributions, rather than things being handed out from the [trunk] of a car, open to the elements. We are also contacting donors to ask them only to bring things that are really necessary, and to forget the high-heeled shoes and the smoked salmon. We plan to set up a large shed outside the camp where people bringing donations can store and sort everything they plan to distribute; we’ll entrust the management of it to a volunteer group. 

I think that as MSF we can make a connection between the refugees, volunteer groups, and the authorities. The mayor of Grande-Synthe is very active, and has the courage to help the migrants. He has installed toilet blocks in an area near the entrance of the camp. As there are no longer enough toilets or showers, we are setting up an additional 20 chemical toilets. Although volunteers regularly clean these facilities, there are still problems managing the facilities. We will make sure they are in good working order, and will set up a system to limit the duration of showers to 10 minutes per person, with a bell that rings one minute before the end so that nobody gets angry when the hot water suddenly goes cold on them.

Rubbish collection is also a combined operation. We have positioned bins around the camp, which are emptied by the authorities. We hand out dustbin bags, and the refugees have decided to organize a weekly spring cleaning. But however much is done, the fact is that the refugees in Grande-Synthe are still floundering in the mud, and sleeping in the cold and wet, including families with small children—some with babies just a few months old. These conditions are inhumane.”

Learn More About MSF's Work With Migrants and Refugees

Elisabeth Griot/MSF