After Calais, migrants seek refuge in France’s Grande-Synthe reserve

Picture of the lake of Grande-Synthe natural reserve on a foggy morning of December. (Ghassen Fridhi)

Grande-Synthe - Cold, rain, humidity, mug, rats, insecurity and insalubrity, these are the conditions in which the migrants are living in a natural reserve of Grande-Synthe, a small city in northern France, 38 kilometres from Calais.

On a cold and foggy morning, we meet with migrants who, since the dismantling of the “Calais jungle”, settled in Prédembourg the natural reserve of Grande-Synthe. This place is not an innocuous choice. Indeed, the nature is best place for the migrants to hide from French police.

From the first moment we entered the reserve many signs made us guess the presence of the migrants. Food waste and other trashes were along the dirt roads full of mud. The small rivers were also polluted by all these filths. At that moment, it was difficult to imagine that this place was a protected natural reserve.

A teddy bear on the ground of the wood in Grande-Synthe abandoned by a child probably when he left the woods with his parents. (Ghassen Fridhi)

Suddenly, a group of five Kurds from Iraq came out of the bushes. They told they were living near the bushes but refused to show their tents and didn’t want to be recorded or photographed. Among them was a minor. Their faces were marked by extreme fatigue and the hardness of their living conditions in the woods. By their smell, some of the migrants we met that day let us to believe that some had not had the luxury of showering in days, maybe even weeks. In the natural reserve, they have absolutely no access to water and sanitation.

Empty tents

We continued our way and saw many empty tents in the woods. All the tents were surrounded by large amounts of filth, rests of foods and clothes. We saw big rats crossing the place. It was hard to figure how can human beings live in such conditions. Some tree branches were torn off and were used to light wood fires. It is the only way for the migrants to warm up and to heat their dishes.

Municipality of Grande-Synthe put instructions in the natural reserve in langages migrants can understand about the rules to respect in the natural reserve. (Ghassen Fridhi)

The number of empty tents we saw on our way in the woods was impressive. Where were the migrants? Toothpastes, clothes, teddy bears, shoes… were everywhere to attest the presence of migrants the days and nights before. Many of them leave Grande-Synthe every day to try to pass to England via the Eurotunnel in Calais. They leave their tents and almost all the belongings in the woods. It makes the atmosphere even more ghostly while a deep silence reigns in the woods.

From the dirt roads where the citizens of the region walk and jog, it is very hard to see the tents. Inside the bushes and trees migrants are hidden from the police. With winter all the trees lost their leaves and make the migrants more vulnerable to the police controls. When we entered the trees and bushes to meet the migrants, most of them fled. Some of them were women and children.

Example of a tent cut and gas by the French police in one of the missions they conducted against the migrants in the natural reserve. (Ghassen Fridhi)

Why were all the migrants fleeing from us? The main reason is because they are afraid of the police. Sometimes, in the morning or evening, French police patrols come to the tents where the migrants are sleeping and wake them up with tear gas and tear down their tents with cutters. Raymond, a Belgian volunteer, showed some tents torn down by the French police. “How can they do this to human beings? This attitude is criminal,” he said edgily. He added “some policemen voluntary gas the sleeping bags and the blankets so the migrants can’t use it anymore”.

Migrant tensions

There are also important tensions between the groups of migrants in Grande-Synthe. These tensions are one of the reasons why the migrants are living in the woods today. In March 2016 following a decision of Damien Carême, the Mayor of Grande-Synthe, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) built a camp with 300 wooden huts hosting more than 1500 migrants

The camp was overcrowded following the dismantlement of the “Calais jungle”, where were living more than 6000 migrants. For years and years, this encampment in the vicinity of Calais was the perfect example of the issue of migrants who attempt to enter UK via the Port of Calais or the Eurotunnel by stowing away on lorries, ferries or cars travelling to UK. All the migrants went to live in streets of Paris or moved to other places in the region of Calais, like Grande-Synthe.

In April 2017, following a violent brawl between groups of Kurds and Afghans, the camp of Grande-Synthe caught fire and was reduced to a pile of ashes. Since then migrants are living in the nature and depend on the help of French and Belgian NGOs.

Ali, a 30 years old Pakistani, told us that in the last month, he had tried four times to reach the UK via Calais. He failed all four times and was arrested by the French police. “They were very aggressive. After two days they released me. I will try again very soon,” he said. He was very emotional. His eyes were full of sadness and desperation. His smile and his big bear couldn’t hide these feelings. He came from so far, crossed dangerous countries like Iran, Turkey or Hungary to reach Western Europe. So close to his goal, he is living since months and months in inhuman conditions in the nature of Grande-Synthe.

Raymond and Anne are two Belgian volunteers who visit migrants in the natural reserve ofGrande-Synthe. (Ghassen Fridhi)

Hopefully for the migrants, plenty of French and Belgian NGOs come to provide them with food, clothes, tents and sleeping bags. We came with two Belgian volunteers, Anne and Raymond. They are active in “Solidaire Ath" a NGO helping migrants. The NGO is based in Ath, a small city 70 kilometres far from Brussels. They drove 131 kilometres from Ath to Grande-Synthe with a van full of goods they collected with other volunteers.

They gave the content of the van in a huge hangar beside the natural reserve of Grande-Synthe. This hangar full of clothes and food for the migrants is managed by local NGOs and is loaned for free by a famous French supermarkets chain.

The generosity of the volunteers was the only ray of sun during that day marked by a grey and foggy weather. On a small dirt road, a group of Afghans came out the bushes where they had their tents to meet with Dominique. This smiling lady from the Belgian city of Gent drives weekly to Grande-Synte to give pieces of wood she takes from a carpentry. The migrants can put the wood under their tents to be protected from the mud.

Ali, the Pakistani migrant, told us how grateful he was to the French and Belgian volunteers while two of his friends were taking tents and sleeping bags from Raymond and left back to the woods.

Last Update: Tuesday, 26 December 2017 KSA 22:25 - GMT 19:25

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After Calais, migrants seek refuge in France’s Grande-Synthe reserve
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