The Star’s BETHANY RIELLY speaks to volunteers and asylumseekers on last week’s conflagration on the coast of France
WHY did a group of refugees burn their own homes to the ground?
It’s difficult to process why last week’s devastating fire at Dunkirk’s La Liniere refugee camp happened — why make yourself and others homeless when anti-refugee and immigration sentiment in France is growing by the day?
National Front leader Marine Le Pen capitalised on the incident, immediately vowing to close all “immigration camps” and severely reduce the number of people who can claim asylum in France if she becomes president.
The French government was also able to wash its hands of La Liniere without the messy business of forcing its closure. The timing, just ahead of the French presidential election, is painfully convenient.
The fires that destroyed La Liniere on the night of April 10 were allegedly started by residents after a fight broke out between Iraqi Kurdish and Afghan refugees.
Eighty per cent of shelters in the camp were reduced to ashes along with many of the community kitchens, leaving 1,500 people homeless including children and unaccompanied minors.
There are many questions that need to be answered about how this happened and whether more could have been done to prevent it.
Some volunteers who had witnessed conditions steadily deteriorating and tensions building between residents claim that the destruction of the camp was the inevitable consequence of its chaotic management.
Martin Hawes, who had been volunteering in the camp since October, said that Afeji, the organisation paid to run La Liniere, repeatedly failed to carry out its duties.
He told me: “Any job they were supposed to do, they didn’t — from maintaining the toilets to registering people for asylum.”
Afeji was slow to respond to referrals of vulnerable children and didn’t register minors living in the camp despite being legally obliged to do so.
Annie Gavrilescu from charity Help Refugees said she and other volunteers had concerns about Afeji’s handling of referrals and also raised issues about inadequate security measures.
In January, Afeji introduced wristbands and a gate-entry system to prevent new arrivals entering the camp. Residents were only given one day to receive the bands, meaning that those who were not present during this time did not get them.
Hawes said that he would often see groups of people waiting at the gates, sometimes pregnant women and children. The system was quickly hijacked by criminal gangs operating inside the camp who would sell wristbands to newcomers for €50 (£42) or more only to rip them off once they got inside.
The measure failed to control the population, gave more control to gangs and created another source of friction among residents.
But Gavrilescu said that many of the difficulties in the camp were out of Afeji’s control as it was limited by a lack of funds and restrictions placed upon it by the French government.
One of the major factors that fuelled tensions was a government ban on building or repairing the wooden shelters.
This particularly affected the growing number of new arrivals — many of whom were from Afghanistan — following the closure of the Calais jungle.
Because of the shortage, newcomers were cramped into small shelters or piled into one of the community kitchens where at least 100 people were sleeping.
“The overcrowding was ridiculous,” said Care for Calais founder Clare Moseley. “There were 10 people sleeping in shelters built for just four.”
The building ban affected the camp in many different ways. “The shelters were a mess — they were mouldy, drafty, cold and damp, and when I say damp I mean soaking wet,” Moseley said.
“In Britain, naturally people fall out with their neighbours, normally because of small things. But imagine you’re sleeping cramped up against other people who haven’t showered in such a small space.
“All this built a lot of tension in the camp.”
These conditions, on top of crippling uncertainty, left many refugees in a state of despair, Moseley said.
“We can cope with a lack of food and water but restoring hope is a lot harder. It’s very damaging to not have hope.”
Although the overarching issue that led to the camp’s demise appears to be deep-rooted ethnic tension between Kurds and Afghans, a lack of shelters did not help to ease hostility and contributed to stoking these tensions.
Some of the Afghan residents grew increasingly angry at the disparity in living conditions between them and the Kurds who formed the majority and as a result reportedly monopolised the shelters and resources.
Despite frequent fighting with reports of a shooting and a riot in March, authorities did little to ease tensions or protect vulnerable residents.
Criminal gangs who partly ran the camp would also expect payments from residents for accessing resources provided by the state such as food and shelters.
Testimonies from volunteers, medics, refugees and officials published in the Guardian in February reported that there were many instances of sexual abuse by people-smugglers against women and children. But again, little was done to protect these vulnerable residents and Britain’s borders remained firmly shut.
As well as blatant negligence on the part of the French government, and of course the British government, both of which failed to support and protect refugees in La Liniere, there are also france What the Dunkirk fire says about how we treat refugees reports on the night of the fire itself that the police and fire brigade did not react fast enough.
An Iraqi Kurdish refugee I spoke to called Bavel said that police waited for a long time outside the camp before entering and “watched people fighting like it was a movie.”
He said that there were still many women and children inside at this time yet the police were not doing anything to intervene.
Although the police and fire engines arrived shortly after the fires were started at around 10pm, Bavel said that the blaze continued until five or six in the morning. Annie suggested that if the response had been faster, the camp might still be standing.
It’s safe to say that if the fire had been anywhere else in France, it would not have been allowed to cause as much damage.
Of course, refugees are in France illegally but as they cannot return home it is the responsibility of the authorities, including those in Britain, to protect them in the same way they would their own citizens.
You can contact Bethany Rielly on Twitter @ b_rielly. A benefit gig in aid of the Dunkirk Legal Support Team and Refugee Women’s Centre is taking place at 8pm on Thursday April 27 at the Magic Garden pub in Battersea, London SW11 4LG. The night will consist of live acts and DJs. Suggested donation of £6. For more information go to mstar.link/LaLiniereBenefit.