Refugees build communities despite the challenge of living hand-to-mouth

Published: 11 January 2016 14:41 CET

By Sam Smith, British Red Cross

On one side of the road, a French suburban estate with large detached houses and family cars in well-tended driveways.

On the other side, armed police stand in front of a dirt track. Scores of muddied refugees, poorly dressed for the wet winter weather, mingle around them.

Welcome to Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, a place where these worlds collide.

The juxtaposition of everyday suburban life against the lives of thousands fleeing conflict and persecution is stark; conditions in the camp are inhumane.

There are just 30 toilets for a population of about 3,000 – one toilet for every 100 people. There are only two drinking water stations and no showers at the time of writing.

“This is not a place to live as a human,” says Bryar, a nurse from Iraq. “It is not healthy. We sleep in a tent and when it rains, the rain comes in.”

The camp’s inhabitants are mostly Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, forced to flee bloody violence.

Bryar, from Mosul, followed the same path through Europe as more than one million other refugees and migrants. He only just survived crossing the Mediterranean on a rubber boat by bailing out the seawater that was pouring into the vessel through a hole. Things didn’t get much easier on land. He was forced to eat discarded food to survive, while a travelling companion resorted to drinking his own urine.

And now, Bryar finds himself stuck at Grande-Synthe, in-between worlds. “I haven’t taken a shower for more than two weeks. You can’t brush your teeth, there is not enough clean water,” says the 27-year-old. As a nurse, he knows the importance of personal hygiene. “You live life step-by-step. When you have a good life, you think about your health. But right now I am so far from a healthy life.”

Bryar has been separated from his family. His father, too frail to make the journey across Europe, is in a refugee camp in Turkey. His sister sought safety in Germany. Given that his English is almost word-perfect, Bryar’s desire is to make it to the UK. He already has family in Manchester.

“I will try to get there any way I can, even if it means getting on a lorry,” he says. “It’s dangerous, but what can we do? There’s no other way.”

One thing that sets this camp apart from others is the high number of families with children. It is estimated that there are 300 children here, including a two-month-old baby. “You hear the women crying at night. They say it is better to die than to live in this place,” says Roonak, a 52-year-old is known as the ‘mother of the camp’.

In a wooden hut, which is missing two walls, she stands over a steaming pot of stew on a makeshift stove fuelled by coal and wood. “Kurdish bean stew,” she says, before reeling off the list of ingredients. There’s a small crowd of people around the hut, eager for some of the food.

“I cook for everyone because all the Kurdish people are my family. There’s nowhere else to cook, so we have to help each other. It’s hard in the camp,” she says. “There’s nowhere to wash and it’s so cold at night. I never thought I would be living somewhere like this. But in a way I feel safe here. There are no guns, no bloodshed.”

People fall silent when she speaks. “We want to get out of this place. We are not uneducated. We have morals,” she says. “It is not about this muddy place or these dirty clothes that we wear. Under these clothes are flesh and bones. We are all the same.”

Like everyone else in the camp, she wants to make it to the UK, and is keen to find a legal way of getting there with her sons.

Karl Pike, policy and advocacy manager at the British Red Cross, says: “Right now the rules don’t offer a clear, safe and legal route for people who have been forced to flee.

“Instead, young families are living near a major road in a camp where smugglers exploit vulnerability and tell refugees they can get onto a lorry and make it to the UK.

“Dangerous journeys are being forced upon desperate people because the other options either aren’t accessible or they don’t exist.”

The Dublin Regulation – an EU law that sets out member states’ responsibilities in relation to asylum applications – offers some degree of help for people with family already in the UK. But too often the procedure is not implemented and refugees are not made aware of their rights.

“The regulation is currently being reviewed by the UNHCR as it isn’t working as it should be. The UK’s family reunion rules are also restrictive,” Pike says.

“The British Red Cross is campaigning to change policies in the UK and the wider EU to expand safe and legal routes – starting with refugee family reunion.”