Impermanence and the burning refugee camp

I left La Linière refugee camp in Dunkirk two days ago. Since then, I had been thinking about time and space and impermanence. Everything about camp is/was impermanent: the shelters, the NGOs, the existence of the camp itself. It’s a challenge for volunteers, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the huge trauma that the lack of permanence must be inflicting on the refugees who live there. Living in a ‘home’ — an MDF shelter — provided by the grace of the Dunkirk authorities. Knowing that everything from your food to your heating to your children’s shoes are impermanent and might be taken away at any moment.

And then, last night, the camp burned down.

Everything I had been thinking about has suddenly been exposed in its most horrible form. The Children’s Centre where I volunteered has lost everything: two buildings full of toys, resources, and art materials. It has also lost children’s writing, art, and volunteers’ painstaking sorting and organisation efforts to make the best of a tiny space. In an attempt to bring some continuity to the children’s imaginative play, a highly experienced volunteer had just brought in a system of exercise books: each child chose a book to decorate, covered it in stickers and drawings, and began to write and draw inside it. This seems like nothing, but think of a child’s existence in a refugee camp: nothing is certain from one day to the next. To come to the Children’s Centre and know that someone cares about your pictures and your doodles from day to day, somebody is collecting them in a special book and keeping the books in a special box, must have meant the world. We could see it in their faces and their careful drawings that it meant the world. But the special books, the special box, the special building, are all ash now.

It’s a shame, it’s a tragedy, but it’s an inevitable one. I’m sure the Dunkirk authorities did not want the camp to burn down this way. They have been better than the Calais authorities, who intentionally razed and bulldozed the Calais camp to the ground. But this is a low bar to have beaten. The Dunkirk camp was 300 wooden shelters heated by cheap, clunky petrol heaters. The camp was impermanent by design. Nobody would have wanted its impermanence to be revealed so violently and traumatically, but impermanent it always was.

Last week was the second time I had visited the camp; I visited previously in December. Plenty happened in between the two visits. In the Children’s Centre, things had changed for the better: there was a stable core of long-term volunteers, which was showing itself in a cleaner, calmer, more organised space. The same experienced volunteer who had brought in the exercise books had labelled absolutely everything and made tidying-up instructions so that, as new short-term volunteers rolled through, they could maintain the same routines for the children. Continuity against discontinuity. But in the rest of the camp, the opposite was happening. The charity that had been providing hot food to the camp had pulled out, and the camp received its food in vans that drove over from Calais every day. There was a growing sense that the atmosphere on camp was getting worse, a sense that things could not continue like this.

And yet the residents themselves were pushing back against impermanence, too. Last Monday, the food trucks from Calais didn’t come; eventually a van turned up, but they only had enough for the residents, so there was no food for us volunteers. We were preparing to drive somewhere to buy some when a mother in the camp invited all the Children’s Centre volunteers to her shelter for lunch.

We sat in a circle in the little shelter, the mum and her daughter, M, who has cerebral palsy. The Centre volunteers had done a lot for M and her mother was grateful. While she was hosting us so graciously, we could see everything she had done to make her little shelter into a home fit for looking after her family. There was soft fabric spread across the floor, so it was comfortable to sit. Plastic was spread across the middle of the floor to protect the fabric from food while we ate, from pretty decorated plates. There was a small wooden shelf, carefully erected out of children’s reach, where there were a few medicine and cosmetic bottles — a little ‘dressing table’. Outside, she had constructed a little kitchen area, with salvaged pots and pans and piles of tins arranged neatly. One of her sons, who we know from the Centre as a cheeky and rebellious boy, dutifully cleared our plates for us at his mum’s instruction.

This mother had resisted the impermanence of her conditions and defiantly made a home, even a home fit for hosting guests. Seeing it and being invited inside it was incredibly powerful and moving. And now it is ash, because neither she nor any volunteering effort can resist hard enough to make true permanence and true security. It is only governments who can do that, and they will not. They want these people to live in radically insecure conditions. Giving them security would be ‘giving in’, making a ‘concession’. European governments have made an active choice to let people live like this, with all its consequences, blazing fires and all.

Home is not a clapboard shelter. Home is not queuing for a food truck. Home is not having your young teenage sons play games called ‘rock fight’ because they desperately need ways to release their energy. Camp residents and volunteers alike had been participating in the fantasy — the incredibly vital, necessary fantasy — that a place like La Linière could ever be a home. Now, the fantasy and its material supports have been ripped away in the most brutal sense imaginable. And surely the only response possible is to provide more permanent, compassionate, stable accommodation. But I read now that the mayor of Dunkirk has no plans to rebuild the camp, and I fear that what replaces it will be the opposite.

After a week in Dunkirk, I am now back to my safe life as a UK citizen, with all its rights and luxuries: I am on holiday in Madrid. Yesterday, at the Museo de la Reina Sofía, I saw Picasso’s Guernica and its accompanying exhibition ‘Pity and terror: the path to Guernica’, which presents Picasso’s earlier works along with thoughtful explanations. One of the key points made by the exhibition is the progression through Picasso’s works from his earlier cubism which deals in the domestic space — the room with flowers, guitars, fruit — to his later works in which monstrous creatures inhabit a monumental position in public space, on the beach, in the town square. In Guernica, the exhibition argues, both these spheres are represented and deliberately intermingled — the private, literally exploding into the public. Part of the painting’s tragedy is the violent, forced intermingling of the home and the street.

Picasso, Guernica (1937), Creative Commons license

This has its parallels in British depictions of the horrors of war. Images used to evoke the Blitz often feature houses with the exterior walls blown off, leaving room interiors tragicomically exposed:

The horror of these images seems to lie in a similar shocking explosion of the private into the public. But such a wrenching disjunction is only possible if there is a solid private sphere to begin with. The image is more tragic for the fact that we can see a perfectly preserved bedroom in the top right. For the refugees of la Linière, there is no such visible juxtaposition. On the contrary, for them, the horror evoked by Guernica and the blitz images is their prolonged everyday existence. The homes that were ripped away last night were never theirs to begin with. For them, there is no true, safe, private sphere; every piece of safe ground the property of somebody else. Constant, violent impermanence and displacement.

The life and treatment of refugees in Europe is not a sad inevitability. Every moment of it is a violent, shameful, avoidable horror. It is Guernica, over and over and over. The fire at La Linière is a particularly drastic, destructive and traumatic flare-up of that violence, but it has been there all along. Unless something radical happens — like the UK government committing to housing and caring for a meaningful number of refugees — the violence will go on and on, long after the ashes of La Linière have blown away.

There are various ongoing emergency efforts to improve the situation of the Dunkirk refugees on the ground. If you have found this essay informative or useful, please consider donating to one of them:

Emergency fund for the Children’s Centre:


A convoy travelling with aid from Cambridge:

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