Armed French police have dismantled a makeshift migrant camp outside Dunkirk where the 27 people who died at sea last week stayed before drowning in the English Channel.
The base site, on the edge of a canal outside the suburb of Greater Smythe, had no toilets or running water, but was nevertheless used by several hundred people, mostly Kurds from Iraq or Iran, hoping to illegally travel to the UK.
Photographs showed police in hazmat suits dismantling the site on Tuesday, a collection of tents and tarps tied between poles, with armed officers standing guard. Tents and unclaimed belongings were picked up and thrown into trucks.
The occupants, mainly men but also families with children, will be dispersed in treatment centers across the country in an attempt to keep them away from northern France. However, many are likely to return in a few days to try to cross the Channel again because they do not want to stay in the country.
Last week, the Guardian spoke to several English-speaking migrants who said they returned as soon as they could. Karwan Tahir, an Iraqi Kurd from Sulaymaniyah who had lived in Britain before 2006, said he was sent to a hotel near Bordeaux but “came back straight away by train; I asked a friend to send me money for the ticket. I don’t want to be there, I want to come to the UK.
Many Iraqi Kurds who try to make the dangerous crossing have friends or family in Britain who will help pay the £2,000-3,000 fee paid to smugglers.
People had only been camping in the canalside area for a few weeks, after a larger and better-equipped site near Grand Smythe and its out-of-town hypermarket was demolished by order of the French minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin. The heating of the new site was provided only by open fires on nights when the temperature regularly dropped below zero degrees.
Several people at the camp knew some of the 27 who drowned last Wednesday, after their dinghy deflated while trying to cross the English Channel. Darmanin said Tuesday that France would “take care of the burial” of the victims.
The number of migrants near Dunkirk has more than doubled from around 400 to more than 1,000 – the total swelled by Belarus’ decision to open its borders to Iraqi migrants. Belarusian security forces often helped people get to Poland, from where it was possible to travel by car, train and on foot to Dunkirk.
No refugee center has existed in northern France since the UK and France reached an agreement to close the Sangatte camp in 2002. An informal camp, known as the Jungle, saw the day thereafter, but it was demolished and closed by the French authorities in 2016.
Since then, migrants have lived in a handful of small camps around Calais and Dunkirk, often dominated by particular nationalities. Charity workers say they are subject to regular raids by French police, with tents pulled down or carried away, as well as being closed when they are deemed to have grown too large.
The number of migrants crossing the Channel rose to 25,776 in 2021, from 8,461 in 2020 and 1,835 in 2019, according to figures compiled by the BBC from Home Office data.