Human rights crisis in Dunkirk as refugees face squalor and chaos

A row of featureless, modern, two-storey houses lines one side of the Boulevard Pierre Mendes France on the outskirts of Dunkirk, with cars parked in driveways and American-style letter boxes standing to attention on front lawns. A man loiters outside talking on his mobile phone, a dog pulling at the lead in his hand. At one end of the road is a retail park housing a giant branch of Jardiland – a garden centre - and an even bigger Decathlon, France’s answer to SportsDirect. At the other, a roundabout leads off to the motorway. A smart new sports stadium, with rugby pitches and a running track, is just across the street.

Under a typically grey northern French sky, it’s as ordinary and suburban a scene as it gets, but right in the middle of it all a particular kind of hell is unfolding. Opposite the nondescript houses, two police vans and a dozen officers guard the entrance to what is officially municipal parkland, but in reality a filthy swamp in which refugees are being left to rot.

Around 3,000 people, including 200 children, are living in conditions that veteran aid workers have described as worse than they’ve seen in conflict zones. A muddy track runs through the middle of this so-called camp, where vans and lorries delivering donated supplies slip in the wet ground trying to manoeuvre past each other. To each side, a sea of tents, many of them broken, are pitched in a quagmire. There isn’t a scrap of land that isn’t covered in a layer of deep mud. A young woman ducks through the doorway of her threadbare tent and into the bog, carrying a tiny baby wrapped in a blanket. Groups of young men huddle around oil cans, burning sticks and bits of broken pallet for warmth. It’s freezing, it’s wet and more people are arriving every day. On a rusty shipping container next to the track – one of the only solid structures on the site - someone has spray-painted the poignant words ‘You’ll never walk alone’. 

Like in the ‘Jungle’ camp 35 miles down the road in Calais, there is no registration system and the only sign of the French authorities are the police on the gate. Volunteers are left to do the rest. Last weekend, a troop of Belgian scouts visited to dig trenches and paths through the mud, while nearby a carload of clowns from Bristol set up a puppet show to entertain children in desperate need of some light relief from the grim reality of life there. An Irish photographer, who’d been in the camp for two weeks, had been endlessly sorting donations of clothes and camping gear, constantly reorganising the space in a khaki-coloured army tent acting as a storage facility for supplies. Meanwhile, Medécins sans Frontières, the only international humanitarian NGO working there, provides a basic health service on weekdays, and a British head teacher has set up a makeshift school.

But unlike Calais, where despite the appalling conditions there is a veneer of order - with different areas of the camp organised by nationality, and small businesses like rudimentary barber shops and grocery stores offering a vague reminder of normality - there’s a chaotic air about Dunkirk that’s as disturbing as it is dangerous.

No-one knows who’s here and anyone can simply walk in. In the chaos, many – including children, whether they are with their parents or not - are at huge risk of abuse and exploitation. Even when people have lodged asylum claims in France, the system is so slow that some give up waiting and try their luck jumping into the back of a lorry to cross the Channel. People smugglers live here, we were told, and gang rivalries sometimes erupt into violence, making already vulnerable people even more so. 

Ask anyone –the majority are Kurds from Iraq, Syria, Iran - why they're there and they'll tell you stories about violence at the hands of ISIS and terrifying boat journeys to reach Europe. They’ll tell you they want to get to England, that in France they are treated badly, that they are frequently beaten up by the police. Many speak English and feel they will be able to get on with their lives more easily if they can communicate, many have family in the UK and those from countries where the UK was once a colonial power may feel historical ties.

The absence of the French authorities means that people living in these camps are entirely unprotected, making this not just a humanitarian crisis, but a human rights one too. France is, of course, a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – adopted by the United Nations in its own capital city in 1948. This means it must ensure that people are protected from inhuman and degrading treatment, from violence, and guaranteed access to a lawyer, to education and to healthcare. It’s hard to see how France is upholding these rights for the people living there.

It’s worth remembering that this is a tiny part of the wider refugee crisis. There are 9,000 people in the camps in Calais and Dunkirk, while over four million registered Syrian refugees are living in just three countries - Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. According to the International Organisation for Migration, Greece has received 45,000 people this month alone, almost 30 times the number who arrived in January last year. These countries cannot cope alone and this crisis needs a comprehensive and coordinated response from European leaders. Sadly, what we’ve seen so far is the opposite. France, possibly with the help of the UK, must urgently begin processing asylum claims of people in Dunkirk and Calais and both countries must work together to offer sanctuary to those who need it, while safely and humanely removing those who have no right to stay. 

This is the everyday reality for the people who David Cameron this week called a ‘bunch of migrants’ - unregistered, unprotected, unknown and unwanted. The prime minister’s words simply fuel the xenophobia spreading across Europe that has seen Denmark, Switzerland and Germany seizing refugees’ valuables, fences being built at borders in Hungary and Bulgaria, asylum seekers in Middlesbrough having excrement smeared on their front doors, and hundreds of refugees sleeping outside a petrol station at the Greek border with Macedonia.

It’s language that promotes hostility, making life even more of a misery for people fleeing war and persecution by governments and armed groups like ISIS. This is how Europe is responding to the refugee crisis, and it is a disgrace. News that the UK will resettle unaccompanied children from conflict regions will offer hope to some, but not those stuck in squalid camps in Europe who don’t have relatives in the UK.

Meanwhile, back on the Boulevard Pierre Mendes France, suburban life continues as normal. A man dressed head-to-toe in lycra runs laps of the track around the stadium. A woman hurries out of her house and into her car, starts the engine and drives off. The French politician after whom the road is named was a member of the French resistance in World War II and a refugee from the brutal Vichy regime, finding sanctuary in London in 1941. He was a champion of human rights. He must be turning in his grave.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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