Hundreds of mi­grants un­ac­counted for after blaze dam­ages camp in France

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY JEAN-BAP­TISTE GUIL­BERT AND AN­GELA CHARL­TON

GRANDE-SYNTHE, FRANCE | Au­thor­i­ties and aid work­ers are search­ing for sev­eral hun­dred mi­grants who dis­ap­peared after a fire rav­aged their camp in north­ern France, a shock­ing blaze that ex­posed anew the chal­lenges and ten­sions around Europe’s mi­grants just 12 days be­fore France’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Po­lice cor­doned off the largely dam­aged camp in the Dunkirk sub­urb of Grande-Synthe on Tues­day and in­ves­ti­ga­tors in­spected the site to try to de­ter­mine the cause of the Mon­day night fire, which broke out fol­low­ing a fight be­tween ri­val groups of mi­grants.

Three mo­bile po­lice units were de­ployed in the area to head off ten­sions prompted by the camp’s demise, the gov­ern­ment said in a state­ment. The in­te­rior and hous­ing min­is­ters headed to the scene in a sign of the gov­ern­ment’s con­cern about the is­sue.

Most of the camp near the English Chan­nel is now re­duced to the charred re­mains of wooden shel­ters and sparse be­long­ings of the mi­grants, who con­verged on north­ern France in hopes of reach­ing Bri­tain as part of waves of re­cent mi­gra­tion to Europe.

As many as 1,600 peo­ple were in the camp when the blaze broke out, ac­cord­ing to Grande-Synthe Mayor Damien Careme and pre­fect Michel La­lande, the top gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial for the re­gion. 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, the mayor and pre­fect told re­porters Tues­day.

Doc­tors With­out Borders, which set up the site a year ago to re­place filthy makeshift camps in the re­gion, is hold­ing meet­ings Tues­day to de­cide what to do next.

Other aid groups are plan­ning to dis­trib­ute meals Tues­day to mi­grants in the gym­na­si­ums and any­where else they are found around town.

The first pri­or­ity is to find mi­grants dis­persed by the blaze, said Corenne Torre, head of the hu­man­i­tar­ian group in France.

“We just don’t know where they are,” she said in an in­ter­view. She es­ti­mated that at least 600 mi­grants re­main un­ac­counted for. Some are be­lieved to be hid­ing be­cause they fear the au­thor­i­ties or be­cause they fear re­join­ing a camp with ri­val gangs, she said.

She said that 10 mi­grants are in lo­cal hos­pi­tals with light in­juries fol­low­ing the fire.

The pre­fect and mayor said au­thor­i­ties be­lieve the fire was set in­ten­tion­ally and was linked to a fight ear­lier Mon­day be­tween Kur­dish and Afghan mi­grant groups in­volv­ing up to 150 mi­grants. The camp will re­main closed dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties will con­sider whether to open a new camp to re­place it.

The sta­tus of the mi­grants in this area are a sen­si­tive is­sue in France ahead of the two-round April 23-May 7 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in which im­mi­gra­tion is a key is­sue. Far-right can­di­date Marine Le Pen and con­ser­va­tive can­di­date Fran­cois Fil­lon re­it­er­ated calls Tues­day for stricter bor­der con­trols.

“This chaos has to end,” Ms. Le Pen said in a state­ment.

The pre­fect took the op­po­site stance. “The is­sue to­day is to shel­ter those peo­ple who live out­side at the mo­ment, and to build a fu­ture for them,” Mr. La­lande told re­porters. France shel­tered mi­grant pop­u­la­tions in the past, he said, “so we are not go­ing to stop the march of his­tory. To the con­trary, it is in the name of this his­tory that we are go­ing to build a fu­ture for these peo­ple.”

“I lost all my doc­u­ments,” said an Iraqi mi­grant who iden­ti­fied him­self only as Al­bidani, stand­ing out­side the camp. “I just have only this pa­per that says I’m a refugee in France.”

“We are refugees here in France. We don’t have any place . ... We don’t know what to do. We lost ev­ery­thing,” Al­bidani said.

ASSOCIATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Is­mael, a Kurd mi­grant, car­ries a guitar he sal­vaged from the burned re­mains of a mi­grant camp in the Dunkirk sub­urb of Gran­deSyn­the on Tues­day. Sev­eral hun­dred mi­grants have dis­ap­peared after they were evac­u­ated from a camp in north­ern France.

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