Desperation in the Grande-Synthe refugee camp in Dunkirk

“It is really important you don’t walk around the camp on your own if you are a woman,” warns Clare Moseley,


Şana has to wear an adult nappy at night because she is too scared to go to the toilet in case she is raped.

The 25-year-old from Iraq is one of an estimated 1,500 refugees who live in the Grande-Synthe camp at Dunkirk, 60 miles from where the notorious “Jungle” migrant camp was dismantled five months ago.

Her home — a wood cabin with a corrugated iron roof, is no bigger than a parking space. She uses layers of duvets on the ground as mattresses, sleeping alongside women she does not know.

“It is really important you don’t walk around the camp on your own if you are a woman,” warns Clare Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, one of the charities helping to provide aid in the region.

She is giving the morning briefing to a group of volunteers from the Jewish Council of Racial Equality (Jcore), some of whom were about to enter the Grande-Synthe camp for the first time.

Ms Moseley explains: “Dunkirk has always had more women and children inhabitants than the Jungle because of its status as the first internationally recognised refugee camp in France.

“There is more structure and it is official, but it doesn’t mean women here are safer. There is a lot of violence and criminal gangs operate and try to control a lot.”

I was one of six of 15 Jcore volunteers visiting the camp to help repair shelters, pick up litter and register refugees’ mobile numbers for phone credit.

Once through the iron gates which are guarded by French armed police, our delegation is greeted by a large group of men, kneeling on the gravelled ground with only sheets of cardboard for prayer mats. They are focused and calm, yet the backdrop of the camp is a contrast of to-ing and fro-ing.

Women carry bags of clothes, while children run alongside them struggling to keep up, and groups of men smoke cigarettes outside their makeshift homes.

Ms Moseley says: “At the moment everybody thinks the problems in Calais have been solved, but they haven’t.

“The French and the British have done a really good job of making everybody think this problem has gone away. But all they have done is move the chess pieces.”

According to the charity there are still up to 150 refugees sleeping rough in Calais, and more than 200 in small camps in the region, along with 1,500 who live in Dunkirk.

Jackie Baines, head of development and communications at the League of Jewish Women, says she was shocked to discover there were under-age minors travelling on their own, some as young as eight.

She explains: “I have a granddaughter that age. I could not imagine how she would fend for herself in such a hostile environment.”

The 63-year-old adds: “I had never been to the Calais Jungle so always relied on reports and articles for what it was like.

“I had thought that only young male refugees were left in Calais, but sadly I was wrong.”

Ms Mosely says: “Since we haven’t been in the news the number of volunteers we have has dropped. I know I am supposed to be all positive but I’m not. The situation here really is awful.”

On the trip to France, Ms Baines spent time helping to pack socks, toiletries, tents and other items at a warehouse used by Care4Calais.

Adam Isaacs, campaigns and communications manager for Jcore was one of three volunteers who patrolled the town looking for refugees as they arrived.

“You could tell either through appearance or their stories that they had been through hell, some showed signs of being tortured,” he explains on the way back to London.

“Not to say some weren’t deeply affected by the situation, but the overall positivity they showed really shocked me.”

David Bier, 66, a member of New North London Synagogue, had joined Mr Isaacs on the patrol.

“Whatever we were doing felt important,” he explains, “but it also felt negligible, because there was still an enormous need.”

Back in Dunkirk, Mohammed Yahya, interfaith programming officer for West London Synagogue and a Jcore volunteer, helps refugees set up mobile phones.

Within seconds of pulling out his notepad, Mr Yahya is surrounded by a ring of refugees, all desperate to get their hands on the item that would reconnect them to family and friends.

He says: “Coming here has reminded me how much there is to do. I had already been to the Jungle, which was chaotic, and while Dunkirk feels more organised, it is still really overwhelming.

“It’s important for me to be here as part of an interfaith group because it shows we can all work together. It doesn’t matter where we are from, we all want to help.”

Ali, 26, who fled Iraq, tells Mr Yahya he wants phone credit so he can contact his brother in London.

“I have been trying to get to him for eight months,” he explains in desperation.

He says he has been one of the many refugees in the camp who have made the deadly attempt to enter Britain illegally each night.

Ali explains: “There is war and fighting back in my home. Life is not good for me. I want to get to my family.”

Carla Hallgarten, 16, was Jcore’s youngest volunteer, and travelled with her father Dan Gritten, who drove participants to France in a minibus which was provided by Lubavitch.

Ms Hallgarten, a member of West London Synagogue, says: “I don’t know how I feel. It was so real and different to what we hear about in the news. I’m glad I did it, but you leave feeling like you want to do more.”

As the day comes to a close the group is invited into a makeshift tent near the camp’s entrance.

This is the site’s “best restaurant” according to Sami, one of the small number of Syrian refugees who has lived here for over a year.

He says: “I am not going back to Turkey, not to Syria. If I do I will die.

“If that means I have to stay here, then fine.”



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