Local churches in Dunkirk helped to evacuate terrified migrants late last night (10 April) as a devastating fire spread through their camp in northern France.

La Linière camp in Grande-Synthe, just outside Dunkirk, housed an estimated 1,500 migrants, including a handful of Christian converts, but has now been reduced to “a heap of ashes”, a local official said.

At least a dozen people were injured – some as a result of the blaze, others because of the knife fight that preceded it, when Kurdish and Afghan migrants clashed. Three Iranian converts to Christianity needed medical treatment for burns on their legs. Another migrant was knocked down by a car on a road outside the camp and is now in a critical condition.

Yesterday afternoon police were called to break up the knife fight, involving six people, in which at least five were injured. Later, at around 10.30pm, Afghan migrants reportedly began to set fire to the chipboard cabins in which the migrants lived, and the fires quickly spread. Riot police intervened.

Volunteers from the Dk Live church helped take migrants to one of the local gymnasiums, where camp residents have been offered emergency shelter. Médecins Sans Frontières said 600 people were unaccounted for after their evacuation from the camp. In addition, the church members evacuated 19 Christian converts from the camp to the safety of a hostel near Calais, owned by Jeunesse en Mission (JEM, the French arm of Youth With A Mission).

A volunteer from Dk Live was injured when a policeman struck her hand with his baton. The volunteer, Laila Mohamed, was helping to evacuate migrants aided by an Iranian who attends the church, named Ramin. Ms Mohamed, who has visited the camp almost daily for months, arrived at there at 11pm. Riot police attempted to hit her and Ramin on the head with their batons, Lydie Granger, pastor of Dk Live, told World Watch Monitor.

Laila Mohamed

“Two or three of our people needed care for burns on their legs,” Mrs Granger added.

Another local church leader, Robert Despré, who runs an Evangelical church in nearby St-Omer, paid for three migrants to spend the night in the safety of a hotel.

Michel Lalande, prefect of France’s Nord region, said earlier this morning (11 April) that the camp’s hundreds of cabins have been reduced to “a heap of ashes”, adding: “It will be impossible to put the huts back where they were before.” 

Mrs Granger said yesterday’s violence was the culmination of six weeks’ growing antagonism between Kurds and Afghans, who were fighting for control of the camp, its cabins and its kitchen. The camp has reportedly been controlled by Kurdish gangs, and Afghans who have arrived since the closure of the so-called “Jungle” in Calais last October have not been given adequate accommodation, she said. But rather than extend the camp, there have been repeated calls, especially from right-wing politicians such as National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, to close it down.

“At 10.30 … the Afghan people began to burn shelters. By the time the firemen arrived, the fire had already spread,” said Mrs Granger.

She said the police were “very repressive” in their efforts to quell the violence in the camp, and that some migrants jumped into a freezing canal to get away from them.

Ms Mohamed organised church volunteers to drive Christian migrants to the JEM hostel 25 miles away “for their security”, Mrs Granger explained. She said the migrants were still in shock, having lost all of the few possessions they had with them in the camp.

Mrs Granger said the Christian migrants could not stay more than a night or two at the JEM hostel and that she needed “a miracle” in her search for long-term accommodation for the Christian migrants because the local area was a stronghold of the National Front. She added that the church “would be very careful” in keeping the location of any “safe house” secret to avoid it being targeted by other migrants.

“I totally don’t know what I am going to do right now,” she added.

In addition to looking for accommodation, the church is to launch an appeal for funds to buy food and clothing for the migrants. Dk Live has been offering hot meals, clothing and pastoral support to the converts for the last 18 months. World Watch Monitor interviewed Mrs Granger last month about her church’s ethical dilemma – of choosing to help the migrants, despite knowing that many of them wished to enter the UK illegally.

Sporadic violence and inter-ethnic rivalry among the migrants in La Linière were common knowledge among the migrants. Migrants in the camp told World Watch Monitor last month that the camp was controlled by Kurdish gangs, who were armed. When World Watch Monitor visited, riot police guarded the entrance to the camp in response to an incident the evening before which had left five people injured, including a security guard. Sub-Saharan Africans wanting to reach the UK had avoided the camp altogether, and are to be found in flimsy tents on the edge of fields, with virtually no amenities.

Was Pastor Granger surprised by the fire? “No,” she said, “because something similar – though not of that intensity – happened three weeks ago.”

The future of the camp will rest with the new government, elections for which begin in two weeks. However, based on the violence that exploded there last night, Mrs Granger sees little future for Christian converts there.