Hundreds of refugees and migrants are missing and facing a night in the open after a large fire ripped through the Dunkirk camp where they were living, destroying the wooden huts and leaving the site uninhabitable.
Officials spent Tuesday trying to find new shelter for the estimated 1,500 people who had been displaced. It is feared that the destruction of the country’s only official migrant camp will result in asylum seekers returning to sleeping rough along the coast near the Channel ports.
During a brief visit to the site, the French interior minister, Matthias Fekl, said the government would not allow it to be rebuilt. The housing minister, Emmanuelle Cosse, said more permanent shelter would be found in centres around the country over the next few days.
Charities made an urgent appeal for donations to help people made homeless by the fire. There was particular concern about the fate of around 120 unaccompanied children, many of whom had been staying at the camp as they tried to travel to the UK to be reunited with family members.
Some were taken to temporary shelter at a sports hall in the nearby town of Grande-Synthe, but charities were struggling to account for all of them.
Corenne Torre, the head of Doctors Without Borders in France, said 900 people had been evacuated to safe shelters, including local gyms, but about 600 remained unaccounted for: “We just don’t know where they are.”
Despite its dramatic scale, no one was thought to have been killed by the fire which broke out late on Monday night.
At the Basroch sports hall, where around 100 men, mainly from Afghanistan, were being housed, most people were in shock.
“We lost everything, clothes, mobile phones, some people lost documents,” Allahnoor Safi, from Bagram, said.
The 29-year-old office manager said he left his home last year because of a problem with the Taliban. “We were very frightened [of the fire]. Everyone was running.”
In the sports hall, most of the men were lying on gym mats pushed closed to the wall and volunteers were distributing food and blankets. “This is just a basketball court,” Safi said. “It’s fine for the moment, but we don’t know where we can go from here.”
A number of men were injured and wearing bandages, with one having stitches in his back from a knife wound. According to several accounts, the fire followed an outbreak of violence between the Kurdish and Afghan residents in the camp and most of the injuries were sustained in the fighting. Officials believe the fire was the result of arson.
Several men at the sports hall said they had seen people deliberately spilling oil from the cooking stoves that were in most huts, and setting fire to it. “They told the women and children to get out, and then they set the huts alight,” said Ali, 21, from Kabul.
The Dunkirk camp had become increasingly overcrowded since the closure of the Calais site in October, and the difficult living conditions had led to escalating disputes between nationalities. Local authorities announced in March that they planned to dismantle the camp this year because of the growing unrest.
Safi said there was not enough room in the huts, and most Afghan asylum-seekers were forced to sleep in the kitchens.
Only about 70 of the 300 huts were still standing after the fire. Lying among the ash were corrugated iron roofs, cooking pots, the remains of food tins (most of which had exploded), and skeletons of bicycles, the rubber tyres burned away.
The destruction of the camp will intensify concerns in the UK about the ongoing migration crisis in northern France, which was not resolved by the removal of the Calais camp – just displaced to new locations.
Organisations working to reunite child refugees with relatives in the UK called on the British government to transfer immediately all 80 unaccompanied children in Dunkirk who had family in the UK.
Rabbi Janet Darley, spokesperson for the Safe Passage project, which helps organise legal assistance for unaccompanied child migrants, said: “The children Safe Passage are working with in Dunkirk should never have been in the camp in the first place; they have a moral and a legal right to be with their relatives in the UK. The government needs to learn the lessons of the Calais camp and the fire in Dunkirk and put a fully functioning family reunion system in place between France and the UK.”
Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP and chair of the home affairs select committee, said: “We have warned for months about the dangerous Dunkirk camp, the violent and unsafe conditions and the huge risks for children stuck there alone without parents or guardians. Yet neither the French nor the British government have done anything to sort it out. They have turned a blind eye for too long to this dangerous camp and the repeated warnings that vulnerable children and teenagers were on their own at risk of violence, exploitation, trafficking and abuse.”
Annie Gavrilescu, of HelpRefugees, said she was worried about the safety of the displaced lone children, the youngest of whom is 12. “We received reports that some of the unaccompanied minors from the camp are being turned away from the family gymnasium, and faced with the choice of either staying with adult men or wandering the streets.”
The charity has set up an emergency fund and called for material donations (email: firstname.lastname@example.org), the most urgent being sleeping bags, blankets, rucksacks, bottled water, tinned food and men’s clothing.