Notes from Camp de la Liniere, Dunkirk. May 9–13, 2016

First impressions

I had wrongly expected that an official Médecins Sans Frontières constructed refugee camp housing over 1,000 migrants would be easy to find. In fact, the camp is well hidden, the rows of small wooden huts having been set on a long, thin piece of waste land between a freight railway line and the A16 motorway a little way outside of Grande-Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk.

There are no cars allowed in the camp so I parked a little way away and walked along the side of the motorway and along a gravel path to a make shift barricade manned by two Utopia 56 volunteers. Utopia 56 are an organisation that have been tasked with managing the camp. Their expertise lies in running music festivals which means they are adept at constructing toilet blocks and providing hot food from the back of a van but less experienced in dealing with the complex needs of migrants and maintaining security in a camp where everyone is free to come and go as they please — volunteers, migrants and people smugglers alike.

I arrived early in the morning to find the camp very quiet and apparently peopled predominantly by dreadlocked, hippy-ish young French people for whom volunteering in places like the jungle has become a long term lifestyle choice. I learned later that a lot of migrants, often entire families, spend their nights trying to get onto lorries to the UK. They return to the camp at daybreak, disappointed and exhausted, and sleep until the afternoon.

The migrants in La Liniere are mainly Iraqi Kurds and there are a lot of families. This is distinct from the Calais camp where I went later in the week which is largely single young men from sub Saharan Africa. As the day wore on people returned from the ports and emerged from their huts and the place came alive. For the first time in weeks the weather was dry and warm and this, so I was told, had lifted the mood of the camp.

Once through the gates (bearing a polite request to leave cameras, alcohol and guns outside), I found a forlorn imitation of the patterns of behaviour that you might see on the streets of somewhere like Marrakech. There is a make shift barber’s shop and the young men are shaving each other’s hair, drinking glasses of sweet tea and listening to the radio. Some have picked up cigarettes and sodas on their nightly wanderings and are selling them from stalls.

The women are much less visible in the camp. This is in part because they are looking after the children, washing clothes, queueing for handouts of nappies and trying to cobble together meals over open fires and forbidden gas stoves. But there are other reasons. For the women perhaps more than the men, it has been harder to leave behind elderly mothers and fathers. Then there is the fact that they have been with their children in close quarters without respite for months and now find themselves living on top of one another in 8 feet square wooden huts. Depression inevitably sets in. For some from more orthodox Muslim communities, there is the need to keep themselves hidden from the view of men that are not their relatives. For all the women there is the constant fear that comes from living amongst people smugglers and criminals (who it is estimated make up about ten per cent of the camp’s occupants). This is also for some the first time they have been in a place of relative safety where they can reflect upon and talk about the horrors of home and the journey that they have undertaken and which is not yet over.

You do not see older people or adults with health problems amongst the migrants. The camp represents the survival of the fittest. The infirm do not set off on the journey. Those that do, die. I spoke to a man who had come to the camp with his wife and two young children from Mosul. He explained that he was a mechanic and proudly showed me photos of the garage he had left behind. The family had travelled through Syria and Turkey and got on a boat to Greece. He became emotional explaining how he had clung onto the little girl now playing at our feet convinced they were all going to drown. They travelled through Romania, Hungary and Austria and spent time in a German camp before entering France. He told me that life in Mosul (which Islamic State took control of in June 2014) had become untenable. He described ISIS as mafia and told of death threats he received for what I understood to be refusing to pay protection money. He showed me a video on his phone of his son, the night before our conversation, in the grip of a nightmare calling out in terror dreaming of the men with guns he thinks are coming to kill him. I saw other photos taken in Mosul of the little girl before they set off on their journey — everything from her t-shirt to her socks emblazoned with the union jack. I asked him about family he had left behind. He said his parents had moved to Baghdad where it was safer. That evening in my hotel I saw on the BBC that 64 people had been killed by an explosion in Baghdad.

London Calling

Every one of the migrants I met — whether from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria or Ethiopia — were intent on getting to England. France is willing to process asylum claims and grant asylum to those that meet the criteria but the inhabitants of the camps are there because they will not put themselves forward for settlement in France. In order not to jeopardise a future asylum claim in the UK the migrants must avoid being fingerprinted in France or in any other safe country because they would then be required to seek asylum in that country. La Liniere camp, and the settlements in Calais do not take fingerprints or names or any steps to keep track of the migrants coming in and out. This means that when people disappear — and it is sometimes the case that 200 people will vanish from the camp in one night — no one knows whether they have been successfully smuggled into the UK or what has happened to them. This is especially worrying in the case of the unaccompanied minors who are in camps for months and then disappear one night and are never heard from again. There is no process for reporting these missing children either to the French police or to any international body.

Ironically, the camp in Dunkirk which is official, relatively well run and where food, clothing, basic sanitation and even English lessons for adults are provided, is in fact a hub of criminality where migrants have to come to meet the smugglers that they will pay £8,000 per person to to be smuggled into the UK. I had previously thought the idea of forcing migrants into detention centres was regressive and inhumane. Certainly, it would mean migrants were not free to come and go and would have to apply for asylum in France but it would also protect them from being preyed upon by smugglers whose cargo is often weapons and drugs as well as people.

I asked the people I met what it was about the UK that attracted them. The answers were similar. Often the migrants want to join a friend or relative already in the UK. There is a feeling that they will be treated more fairly in England than they will be in France. I am not sure there is anything to substantiate this — in fact the French have stated that they have spaces in detention centres for migrants seeking asylum whereas the UK detention centres are full which is why asylum seekers here are sometimes held in prisons — however, the behaviour of the French police, from what I heard from migrants and volunteers and from what I could see for myself, certainly would serve to reinforce the impression that France is not a welcoming or tolerant society. Other than periodic “shows of force” in the Calais camp that involve teams of armed French police running through the camps like storm troopers wearing masks, the police do not interact with the migrants. They are quick to reach for tear gas and some migrants and volunteers claim to have seen them taking bribes from people smugglers and beating migrants. Rumours abound that if you agree to claim asylum in France you will be transferred to a detention centre where the authorities force inmates to eat pork. It is impossible to know if there are any truth behind these rumours but it is hard to understand how, every night, despite the fact there are many police around the camps and both French and UK border police checking vehicles, dozens and dozens of migrants are making their way across the Channel in lorries.

Beyond the pull of family and the push of the French system, there is a cultural affinity that those I spoke with feel for the UK. The belief that the people and institutions of the UK are tolerant and fair and that, if you work hard, you will advance made me feel at once proud to be British but fearful of the disappointment that the migrants, if they ever get here, are likely to experience.

The School

The school set up by Dr Rory Fox cannot be called a school. Official French schools must meet health and safety requirements and teach a French curriculum. So what Dr Fox has set up is, officially at least, a ‘cultural centre’. On a number of occasions French teachers have come to volunteer their services but there is a great deal of resistance amongst migrants to being taught French. They are set on getting to the UK and are only willing for their children to learn English.

Having recently relocated from a leaky tent into a wooden building, the classroom is dry, cheerful and well stocked. The main challenge is not the supply of materials or keeping children dry and warm now that the weather is better. It is simply the churn of people through the camp which means that children might be there for several months and then, without the teachers knowing it is going to happen, they are gone. The fact that increasingly, the camp provides a home to criminal gangs means that parents, fearful for their children’s safety, do not want them out of their sight and so keep them in their huts. There is the fact that the children are often very tired, having spent a large portion of the night walking and the difficulties of teaching a variety of ages and abilities in once space; the older children don’t want to be taught alongside the younger ones and the unaccompanied minors who are typically older teenagers keep their heads down because they don’t want to come to the attention of the people smugglers. Finally, and joyfully, there is the fact that children are children and sometimes it is just more fun to ride a cobbled together bike up and down a rocky track than to sit in a classroom.

The school is open from 10am to 4pm every week day. Children between the ages of 5 and 15 wander in and out. Because of the mix of ages and abilities there is no whole class teaching. Instead teachers sit with individuals or groups and work through basic literacy and numeracy exercises. Some months ago, Dr Fox had a group of children who he had prepared to sit a GCSE in Maths and they were about to go to Paris to take the exam when there was a large movement of people out of the camp and the children were gone.

I worked with children some of whom had been coming to the school for months, others who had just arrived and some who had reappeared in the camp after an absence of days or weeks during which time they had travelled to Spain with smugglers trying to get them into the UK through Spanish ports. Dr Fox tries not to get drawn into the personal histories of these children but to focus on instilling educational aspirations in them and teaching them what he can for the time he has them.

Some children have clearly been educated well and consistently. Then there are twelve year olds who aren’t literate. I found a number of children who had some basic German which I realised was because the Dunkirk camp was only the latest of a series of temporary places to stay on their long journey and many had spent significant amounts of time in German camps.

Sometimes some of the mothers come into the school to help with the teaching. I met Dilpak, an Iraqi Kurd. She was in the camp with her husband and two young daughters. She speaks some English despite not being schooled beyond the age of 12. She has not seen her parents for eight years. She came in one afternoon after an absence of a few days. Her feet were raw. She had been taken towards Spain in the back of a lorry as part of a smuggling attempt. It hadn’t worked and she had walked through the night to get back to the camp. She sat quietly and did sudoko for an hour to take her mind of things.

The Jungle

I went to the ‘jungle’ camp in Calais which has grown up on an asbestos contaminated site. Half the camp has recently been demolished leaving behind a rocky, flat waste land where the camp inhabitants come to sit sometimes and fly home made kites.

There are 5,000 people here, mainly young African men. There is an obvious and large police presence although no one questions me when I walk into and around the camp. The path into the camp is dotted with the dried out corpses of very large rats. The camp operates like a favela. There are cafes and shops powered by noisy generators. The pathways are narrow, pot-holed and dirty. There are make shift mosques and a medical centre where volunteer doctors come to hand out strepsils and cough medicine because they can’t prescribe.

I spoke with David who had spent the night trying to get onto lorries. He has been in the jungle for four months and lives in a tent with eleven other men. He will not contemplate claiming asylum in France. If he did he would be moved immediately into the waterproof white containers that are set up in part of the camp for people willing to be finger printed and processed.

I had lunch in a café that a Pakistani man has managed to set up in the midst of the chaos. He was serving vegetable curry, tea and samosas. The café was clean and decorated with thousands of brightly coloured children’s party balloons.

The tents and shacks have been daubed with graffiti calling for peace and harmony and acceptance. But the camp still divides itself along racial and religious lines, fights break out amongst the men living together in crowded tents. Tensions erupt, shots are fired, the police come in with tear gas.

The migrants in the camps both in Calais and in Dunkirk are not starving. The children are shod and there is no longer raw sewage running through the streets. If a child falls ill they are taken to a French hospital for treatment. Now that winter is over people are no longer coughing up blood and freezing. In that sense there are more gut wrenching sights in the shanty towns of Mumbai every day. But the migrant camps are joyless places where people are fearful, preyed upon and desperate. My predominant feeling was sadness at the massive waste of human potential. To meet children who are bright and interested but whose education and therefore life potential has been destroyed and to realise that this part of northern France is the tip of the iceberg and the situation is replicated many times over in Kenya, Sudan, Turkey, Ethiopia, Greece and elsewhere.

Edlumino and ‘teachers without borders’

There are children all over the world in refugee camps. Some are there for years and years. They are not receiving anything like a decent education. As a result, their life chances are irrecoverably damaged. Dr Rory Fox and his colleague, Ginny Parry, who worked together in the UK as Head teacher and Deputy, set up the school that I visited and the Edlumino Education Aid organisation to generate funding to keep it running. Their ambition is to roll the Dunkirk model out across camps in other regions across the globe.

Their vision is to establish a ‘teachers without borders’ based on the doctors without borders model. Readymade container classrooms containing the basic equipment needed to set up a field school would be put together in the UK . As and when the need arose and it was politically feasible to set up a school in a camp, the mobile classroom and equipment would be shipped out to the refugee camp along with two qualified teachers who would set up and run the school. Surprisingly nothing like this exists at present.

What Rory and Ginny are doing in France at present is not sustainable in the long term because it depends on their continued physical presence in the school and them continuing to self-fund. In order continue in Dunkirk and to ‘franchise’ the Dunkirk school across other refugee/migrant camps, they need a flow of qualified teachers willing to spend six to twelve months working in/running a school in a camp. This in turn requires funding so that recruits could be given an income of say, £20,000 a year to cover their costs of living. It also means that they have to market this volunteer opportunity to newly qualified teachers, retired teachers and teachers midway through their career who are disenchanted and looking for

something to reignite their interest in teaching. (Several volunteers who have got to teach in Dunkirk to date have fallen into this last category.) Then there is the logistical side: storing paper, pens, text books etc. in the UK along with mobile classrooms (which as the Dunkirk experiment has shown could simply be a large tent) ready for deployment; liaising with organisations and governments that are responsible for migrant camps to understand where the need exists and where a school might usefully and safely be set up.

To obtain a grant or a corporate sponsorship requires professional pitching of the teachers without borders vision. Grant making bodies tend to stipulate the information they need in order to consider whether to make a grant. Corporates need to be presented with the vision of the charity; details on the organisational structure; marketing strategy; key personnel; budget; long term viability analysis; social impact etc. They also require that the charity’s aims be apolitical, non-controversial and broadly appealing to their clients, customers and employees; in short something that allows them to tick the ‘corporate responsibility’ box without raising any eyebrows. Although the issue of migrants is a vexed one, I think everyone could get behind the idea that dispossessed and displaced children deserve an education.

What I would like to do is to put Rory and Ginny in touch with people who may have the expertise to help them with the process summarised above or who have potentially useful contacts. If you think you might be someone in this category, please do get in touch with me.

( /07398 686058)


Labour councillor. External Relations at The Difference. Playwright (MidLife, Barbican, 2020). Lawyer. School governor. Jo Cox Women in Leadership alum.