By Sam Smith, British Red Cross
British and French Red Cross volunteers have carried out a joint aid operation to help refugees and migrants in northern France. Volunteers and staff from both National Societies have distributed 1,300 parcels of emergency supplies in five camps.
Conditions in the camps are squalid and people have little protection from the winter weather.
The largest of the camps visited by Red Cross teams was in Grand-Synthe, close to Dunkirk.
The camp’s population, estimated to be between 2,600 and 3,000 people, has increased significantly in recent weeks. It is the biggest camp outside of Calais and is predominantly inhabited by Kurdish people from Iraq and Syria, including a large number of families with children. There is little in the way of facilities such as toilets, showers or clean water. With the recent wet weather, conditions in the camp have become both unhygienic and dangerous.
Simon Lewis, head of UK emergency planning response, said the situation in Grande-Synthe had deteriorated significantly. “There are huge humanitarian needs among the families living there, which is why we launched this joint operation with our colleagues from the French Red Cross – the first of its kind,” he said. “People are surviving on very little. There’s no electricity, heating or waste management. The lack of toilets and showers mean people are living in appalling and inhumane conditions.”
The aid convoy set off from the UK with 16 British Red Cross volunteers and staff. Items given to refugees and migrants included first aid kits, toiletries, hats, scarves, gloves, rain ponchos and information on how the Red Cross can help find missing family members. The four smaller camps to receive aid were at Angres, Norrent-Fontes, Tatinghem and Steenvorde. They are predominantly inhabited by people from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Sudan and Vietnam.
Earlier this year the UK and French governments agreed that vulnerable people living in camps should be protected and that trafficking should be prevented. They also pledged to make the welfare of women and children a priority. British Red Cross refugee policy manager Karl Pike says that action has yet to follow the words. “From speaking to families living in the camps, including many with young children, it is clear more must be done to improve conditions for people, starting with sustainable shelter to protect against the winter,” he said. “We also need to see more done to provide safe and legal routes for refugees so that people don’t feel they have to make dangerous journeys and survive in poor conditions in order to find refuge.
“Many people I spoke to at Grande-Synthe had family in the UK, but often the rules prevented them from reuniting with their family. We want to work with the government to remedy this and strengthen a pre-existing safe and legal route for refugees.”