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Bristol volunteers run refugee camp in Northern France

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Over two thousand refugees are currently living in the Grande Synthe camp yet somehow we drove past them all without noticing. One of the most bizarre aspects of this developing crisis is how their battle to survive takes place so close to where people are living their everyday lives. Across the road from the camp there is a suburban housing estate, just minutes away on foot there is a popular French supermarket and within an hour it’s possible to be in the UK. It is this last fact that has caused hundreds upon hundreds to travel here from their homes in Iraq, Iran and Syria in search of a new home and a better future.

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We spoke to dozens of refugees during the day and despite all their cultural and religious differences they are united by a will to survive whatever this winter throws at them and the goal of making it to the UK. It is hard to distinguish between those fleeing persecution in their home countries and those who see Britain as a more rewarding life prospect, but they all have a story to tell and all share the determination to better their situation. One phrase uttered again and again –UK or die – sadly for many it could well be the latter.

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We arrive at the camp just after dawn and it’s eerily quiet. This is because despite it being one of the mildest December’s in recent years, it’s still very cold if you’re living under canvas day and night. Even more so when your tent is pitched on pallets or stone so your bed isn’t in the inch or so of water, which the whole area has been covered by for days now. The medic we spoke to warns many are ‘cold to the bone’ and if more help doesn’t come there will be deaths when winter truly bites.

The first sign of life we see is a toddler playing outside his tent in the mud with a stick, he looks happy and healthy –perhaps because his family hasn’t been here too long, perhaps because his parents still have hope. Hope is something many in the camp still have and the arrival of a UK film crew leads to many questions – has the British Government decided when we can come? Where in the UK will we go? What support is there? These are questions we are unable to answer but are embarrassed to dodge. Instead we tell them we’re here to tell their story and that of the Aid Volunteers who are giving up their families, jobs, lives to help.

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There is virtually no infrastructure in the Grande Synthe Camp. There is one block of toilets for thousands of people and we are told the layer of mud everywhere is likely to include more than water and earth. There have been recent outbreaks of dysentery and despite very limited access to running water we are told to ensure we wash hands regularly. There is limited power and this is used to run a small kitchen facility and to power a charge point for mobile phones – for many the only way they can keep in touch with the family they have left behind.

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The camp is ‘run’ by volunteers in as far as the 15 people we met during the day are able to help thousands of refugees. In just 6 months the size of this camp has more than quadrupled from just 500 at the start of the summer. As reports circulate of the Jungle in Calais overspilling and being regularly stormed by French riot police, more and more refugees have chosen to head to Grande Synthe. However the numbers of volunteers and support has not been able to keep up with this rapid growth. On the day we visit there are the 6 volunteers from Bristol based charity Aid Box Convoy, who we have travelled with, 2 workers from another aid charity from Belgium, a team of 6 from Medecin sans Frontiere who now have a van from which they can offer medical advice, and a man from Malvern whose daughter inspired him to get involved and now has become the camp handy man. Speaking to the volunteers from Bristol they have taken it upon themselves to do their best to run the camp,they say the French authorities aren’t going to help and therefore they must; one tells us ‘how can we not when we’ve seen the people here?"

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The work being done by this small group is incredible, but they are being stretched to the limit. There is a makeshift school, a small kitchen, regular distribution of clothes and food. Most importantly they provide the refugees with the feeling they have not been forgotten and it’s hard to go anywhere in the camp without seeing the volunteers being hugged by the people they’re helping. The sense of ‘we’re in it together’ comes to life when the volunteers try to organise a clean up and sort out all the aid, which has been delivered over the weekend. I say delivered but the word used by volunteers is ‘dumped’. The presence of thousands of refugees in a developed European country has prompted widespread donations from across the continent, however often the clothes, food and tents are just left in big piles by the weekend ‘mercy missions’ which bring aid but not the help to ensure it gets to the right people.

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During the day we meet the men, women and children who are staying at the camp whilst they try to get to the UK. There are horror stories including a mother from Iraq who describes how her daughter was killed by Daesh before they fled. Now her surviving daughter has a broken leg after an attempt to smuggle themselves into England in a van failed. She tells us they try to get here multiple times each week and will keep trying as it’s the only way she see a better future. We also speak large groups of men who each night set off to either try and hide in the lorries bound for Calais on the Channel Tunnel or smuggle themselves onto the ferries heading to Dover. They all know it’s going to get tougher living on the camp as the winter hits properly and this makes their quest to set up a new home in the UK even more pressing. These people are on the brink. On the brink of a humanitarian crisis but also on the brink of fulfilling their dreams of making a new home in the UK.

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