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Amid rats and mud, refugees struggle in French camp

Not far from the "Jungle" in Calais, 3,000 people live among foul swamps in another refugee camp. The inhumane conditions have compelled MSF to build new accommodation on drier grounds. Diego Cupolo reports from Dunkirk.

Rat tracks trace the ankle-deep mixture of mud and human waste as Omed Mohamed pulls out his phone to show photos of two gunshot wounds he received while fighting the "Islamic State" in Kobani. A former soldier of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), Mohamed struggles to find his balance using a single crutch and curses the refugee camp where he's been stuck for the last four months.

"This place is for animals, not for humans," he says. "France is not good for us. If I don't go to England, I go to Germany."

He is standing just outside Dunkirk, in Grande-Synthe swamp, where a camp of predominantly Kurdish refugees has grown from 700 inhabitants in October to more than 3,000. Few NGOs are on site, and French police guard the entrance, turning away any building materials to prevent the settlement from expanding.

Omed Mohamed struggles to reach his tent through ankle deep mud

Omed Mohamed must struggle to reach his tent through ankle-deep mud

The restriction has created a camp with two water faucets and one toilet per 115 people, forcing inhabitants to occupy backpacking tents pitched in unsanitary mud that floods each time it rains, which happens often in northern France.

Thirty-five kilometers (22 miles) from the Calais "Jungle," the Dunkirk camp has conditions unseen anywhere else along the migration trail and could easily be declared Europe's worst, said Angel Muller, project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Grande-Synthe.

"It's more easy in South Sudan with 80,000 people in a camp coordinated by the UNHCR," Muller said. "Here we have 3,000 people in a rich country, and it is a complete disaster. It is really a shame for me [as a French citizen]."

Volunteer Mecha den Houdyker removes rubbish from a drainage ditch to increase the outflow of contaminated water

Volunteer Mecha den Houdyker removes rubbish from a drainage ditch to increase the outflow of contaminated water

In response to the situation and the town mayor's pleas for help, MSF is now building a 3.5 million-euro ($3.8 million) camp, with costs split between the NGO and the municipality, according to Muller. Five hundred weatherized tents will provide shelter for 2,500 people on dry ground.

Some camp volunteers criticize the facility as insufficient.

"The MSF camp is a Band-Aid and won't resolve the problem," said Maddie Harris, a Bristol native who has been coordinating volunteers in the camp for four months. "It's just tents in a field again that may or may not be heated. Not to mention, it's the middle of winter and it won't be ready for another month."

Desperate straits

Until now, MSF has provided the few sanitation facilities in the existing camp, but independent volunteers, mostly from England and Belgium, have been distributing food and sneaking in tents and building materials through the surrounding forests.

"If we weren't here, these people would have to break into houses and steal to survive," said Alain Meuleman, a Belgian volunteer who recently installed a water pump in an effort to reduce water levels in the camp. "What we don't get from the pictures is the terrible smell and the sound of babies crying."

Some volunteers have taken extraordinary measures to improve conditions in the camp. Every weekend, Mecha den Houdyker submerges waist-deep in adjacent drainage ditches, often used as bathrooms, to remove garbage and improve the outflow of water from the camp, in hopes of decreasing the spread of disease.

Rubber boots covered in mud

Rubber boots are a fact of life in Grande-Synthe

Scabies, a contagious skin infestation of microscopic mites, is a common problem in the camp, along with respiratory illnesses and burns among people huddling too close to fires when trying to stay warm at night.

"All the governments are not acting, and all of them have their reasons," den Houdyker said after pulling two dead rats from the water, "but, for me, those reasons aren't justified when they create a place like this."

The well-intentioned efforts of the inexperienced independent volunteers currently sustaining the camp are not always properly executed. Twenty-kilo (55-pound) bags of potatoes and onions lie throughout the camp, lost to the mud as casualties of unorganized food distribution.

Watch video 00:56

Bad living conditions in Calais refugee camp

Smugglers have the clean shoes

The camp in in Grande-Synthe, not far from France's second largest port, grew in response to discrimination faced by Kurdish refugees. Bedouins and Iranians are also present and negotiate with smugglers who charge 3,000-4,000 pounds (3,900-5,200 euros) per person for a chance to reach England, according to multiple sources.

Smugglers are easy to spot in the camp as their clean shoes give them away, but many young males try to sneak into trucks bound for England via the ferry terminal. Hama, a 20-year old Iraqi Kurd, said he studied his tactics online, and some of his friends have made it through by rubbing black pepper on their bodies to avoid detection from police dogs.

"I cut an 'L' into the plastic [tarp on the truck]," Hama said. "I put my foot in first and then my head. When I am inside, I use the tape to close the hole and stay quiet."

A boy walks on pallets to avoid the mud field after leaving the kitchen area with food

A boy walks on pallets to avoid the mud field after leaving the kitchen area with food

So far, Hama has yet to make it to England, but he does not worry about getting caught.

"The police is good for us because they bring us back to the 'Jungle,'" he said with a smile, holding a roll of electrical tape in his hand.

But these methods have proven fatal as Masu, an Afghan minor, died of suffocation earlier this week while hiding inside a truck in Dunkirk. He was 15 years old.

"The biggest shame of all is [that] MSF is working in France," said Mohammed, a Kurdish Iraqi who did not give his last name. "MSF usually works in countries that have war or poor countries. Now it is in one of the richest countries of the world."

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