Until a week ago, the refugee camp in the northern French town of Grande-Synthe was a squalid tent city erected on a patch of freezing marshland. Several thousand migrants had been living there since the fall, in conditions that aid workers described as "worse" than in Calais' infamous Jungle camp.
But on Wednesday, the waterlogged encampment was closed down, and migrants were moved to a new site nearby. The new camp — which was built by international medical NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and is being run by a collective of European aid organizations, including Utopia 56 — is the first refugee camp in France to meet international humanitarian standards.
More than 1,000 migrants are already living in the new camp, a cluster of wooden sheds built on a former 12-acre wasteland, nestled between the A25 highway and an industrial park.
Some of the migrants have built extensions onto the huts to store their belongings. (Photo by Pierre-Louis Caron/VICE News)
Many of those living there are Kurdish families who fled conflict in Iraq and Syria. According to volunteers, the move to the new site went smoothly, and did not require police intervention — a far cry from the scenes observed in nearby Calais.
In fact, some volunteers have already dubbed the new site "the anti-Calais." Local daily La Voix du Nord also highlighted the differences between the two camps: while migrants in the Calais camp are subjected to biometric handprint checks, refugees living in Grande-Synthe are free to come and go as they please. Volunteers told VICE that police in Grande-Synthe patrol the camp daily, making "quick rounds."
"The former camp, very bad memory," said Majid, a 35-year-old Iranian migrant who was chatting away with two Irish volunteers. For Majid and the other migrants, struggling to keep warm and dry in the mud and the cold are now a thing of the past. The new camp, which is equipped with showers and bathrooms, looks a lot like refugee camps in Lebanon or Jordan.
Rows of wooden bungalows line the main road through the site. Above one of the huts floats the flag of Kurdistan. Inside the heated sheds, migrants sleep on the floor — an improvement on the damp, patched-up tents of the old camp.
The only reminders of the former marshland slum are the mud-spattered boots that have been laid out to dry outside the new huts.
Migrants in the old Grande-Synthe camp lived in squalid conditions, struggling to stay dry in the mud. (Photo by Phil Caller/VICE News)
When asked what their next destination is, many of the migrants answer, "England, United Kingdom." Mohammed, a Kurdish migrant in his 40s, is hoping to join his family there. "I can say that we're better off here, people help us, it's very good," he told VICE News.
"This morning, there are more than 125 volunteers on site," said a volunteer who was distributing bread and fruit salad from a fruit track, parked near the camp entrance. He and three other volunteers, all in their 20s, had traveled from Paris and the western city of Rennes to help distribute provisions donated by locals and by nearby supermarkets. "We can keep the camp alive this way, it's a change from what was going on before," he said.
Ian, a British volunteer in his 50s, was busy measuring a doorframe and overseeing a team of four volunteers. "I never met them until this morning," he said of his new colleagues. He said has taken three days off work to help build the camp. He hopes to have three huts built by the time he leaves.
"Tomorrow or Tuesday I'm going to help work on a bigger building that will be used as a double place of worship — a mosque and a church, under the same roof," he said. A school and several meeting rooms are also set to open over the next few days, to cater to the many children who live in the camp.
At the end of the main road, volunteers have just finished erecting hut #267. MSF plans to build a total of 375 dwellings, enough to house 1,500 people. Migrants who are waiting for a hut to become available are housed in big white tents pitched on gravel.
According to MSF and the city of Grande-Synthe, there are enough vacant lots on the site to eventually house up to 2,500 people.
After initial plans for a camp were vetoed, the new installation was finally given official approval in January. MSF is spending 2.6 million euros on the new camp, and the town of Grande-Synthe has invested a further 500,000 euros.
Following a visit by experts on March 7, officials threatened to close the camp unless it was made to meet safety standards — a request seen as hypocritical by many aid groups, which accused the government of reaching "new standards of cynicism."
"It's not really decent for the government to come and point out these faults now, when construction started weeks ago," said one volunteer, who wished to remain anonymous. "What we're building here is an anti-Calais, a citizen camp, not a police camp."
Meanwhile, the old camp sits empty, a graveyard for battered old camping tents. A handful of migrants roam the old site, checking for belongings. A digger sits in the field, waiting for the cleanup operation to start later on Monday.
Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter: @pierrelouis_c