France won't play Britain's 'border guard' says presidential frontrunner after huge fire destroys Channel migrant camp

Henry Samuel

France's biggest camp for migrants hoping to illegally enter Britain from its northern coast was "deliberately" burned down on Monday night, local authorities said, rekindling a heated immigration debate just two weeks before French presidential elections.

In the wake of the blaze, presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron warned that France could no longer act as the UK's "border guard".

Home to an estimated 1,500 migrants, the Grande-Synthe camp near Dunkirk had become the de facto new Calais "jungle" since the notorious sprawling tent city was bulldozed in October, and it was seen as a key people trafficking hub for migrants seeking to illegally enter the UK.

But on Monday night, the camp was engulfed in flames in the wake of a dispute between rival Afghan and Kurdish gangs, with police firing volleys of tear gas to separate the groups. At least ten people were injured, some from knife wounds, in the "extremely violent" clashes.

The scale of the destruction became clear in the morning, with only 70 out of 300 cabins and a handful of communal buildings still intact. The others were smouldering embers or burned beyond repair, along with their contents.

"There is nothing left but a pile of ash," said Michel Lalande, the highest state representative of the Nord region. "It will be impossible to rebuild cabins in place of those that existed before." 

Olivier Caremelle chief of staff of the Green mayor of Grande-Synthe, said: "There must have been deliberately started fires in several places, it's not possible otherwise."

Migrants evacuate the Grande-Synthe camp Credit:  PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP

Up to 600 migrants took part in the fighting, which witnesses said started after Afghans accidentally struck a Kurd in the face with a football during an impromptu match. 

Designed in collaboration with Doctors Without Borders as the first camp in France to meet international humanitarian standards, Grande-Synthe was dubbed an exemplary site where migrant families could live in relatively dignified conditions in heated wooden cabins.

Opened in March 2016, the site also contained shower blocks, communal kitchens, recreation areas and a medical centre. Access to all the services was free.

But it struggled to cope with rocketing arrivals after the Calais camp was razed and living conditions had deteriorated, creating tensions between Kurds, in place since the camp's construction, and recently arrived Afghans - many of whom were forced to live in the kitchens.

Grande Synthe was reduced to ashes after the overnight fire Credit: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP

In mid March a fire broke out at a guard house – the previous month, Le Monde reported on concerns that the site was ripe for unrest and fires. In December another fire had swept through the site. Police intervened at the camp after five men were injured in a fight in early March. Another man was stabbed in November.

In March, Bruno Le Roux, France's then interior minister, said: "It's no longer just a question of re-establishing public order" in the camp. France must proceed with a "progressive dismantling of the camp". Days later, however, it was granted a fresh six-month lease of life on condition it halved its population.

Migrants evacuate as a huge fire blazes through the Grande Synthe camp Credit: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP

Monday night's blaze left authorities and charities scrambling to house homeless migrants, many who had lost all their belongings in the fire.

Some 500 were taken to three local gymnasiums, including one set aside for children and families, but most of the other migrants remain unaccounted-for.

"We just don't know where they are," said Corenne Torre, head of Doctors Without Borders in France.

Grande-Synthe near Dunkerque Credit: David Rose for The Telegraph

 

The seemingly-insurmountable issue of migrant camps in the north of France has come into sharp focus with the first round of the French presidential elections this month, and far Right champion Marine Le Pen poised to sail through to the second round.

On Tuesday, she and and mainstream Right candidate François Fillon seized on the blaze to call for stricter border controls into France.

The fire was, said Ms Le Pen, "the sign of huge migratory chaos that has been rocking our country for years. This chaos must stop," she said. "Our national borders will be instantly reestablished" should she win, she added.

Mr Fillon said that "building camps is not the solution", and that the only answer was to tighten border controls and "return migrants who don't have the right to asylum and welcome those who do have the right to political asylum".

Richard Ferrand, secretary general of Mr Macron's En March! (On the Move!) group, said the centrist candidate intended to "reopen discussion with Britain" as part of wider negotiations over Brexit on "the situation that has turned us into the border guards in a sense of this country".

Most candidates want to renegotiate the 2003 Le Touquet accords where France agreed to allow Britain to conduct border checks on French soil.

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