Huge fire destroys French migrant camp

TOPSHOT - Firefighters work to extinguish a huge blaze at the Grande-Synthe migrant camp outside the northern French city of Dunkirk on late Monday, reducing it to "a heap of ashes", the regional chief said. (AFP)
Updated 11 April 2017
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Huge fire destroys French migrant camp

GRANDE-SYNTHE, France: A huge fire has destroyed one of the biggest migrant camps in France housing 1,500 people, which started after a brawl involving hundreds of Afghans and Kurds, officials and police said Tuesday.
The Grande-Synthe facility near the northern French port of Dunkirk was the only one in the area and provided hundreds of wooden huts for shelter, as well as cooking facilities and showers.
“There is nothing left but a heap of ashes,” Michel Lalande, prefect of France’s Nord region, told reporters overnight as firefighters battled the flames, which were visible from several kilometers away.
Firefighters said at least 10 people had been injured in the inferno, which followed an outbreak of fighting that required riot police to intervene.
The scale of the destruction became clear in the morning, with only 70 out of 300 huts and a handful of communal buildings still intact. The others were smoldering embers or burned beyond repair, along with their contents.
The camp, built by the humanitarian group MSF (Doctors Without Borders), opened in March 2016 over the objections of the central government, which announced plans to close it in March.
For more than a decade France’s northern coast has been a magnet for refugees and migrants trying to reach Britain, causing tension between the two neighbors.
“There must have been fires deliberately set in several different places, it is not possible otherwise,” said Olivier Caremelle, chief of staff of Grande-Synthe Mayor Damien Careme, an environmentalist who supported the building of the camp last year.
“It seems that it is related to fights between Iraqis and Afghans,” he said.
One resident, Emal, told AFP that the fighting had started after a football match between Afghans when the ball struck a Kurd from Iraq “who insulted the Afghan people.”
The Afghans tried to catch him but he managed to escape before returning with a gang of armed friends, Emal said.
A police source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had been several bouts of fighting which culminated in a massive brawl involving around 600 people at 9:30 p.m. (1930 GMT) Monday.
Lalande said the fighting had left six injured with knife wounds.
The loss of the camp left local authorities scrambling to find alternative accommodation for the residents, most of whom were fleeing war or poverty in the Middle East or Afghanistan.
Around half of the residents were hastily lodged in public gymnasiums overnight.
Local association Auberge des Migrants warned that it had been unable to find many minors who were previously in the camp.
“Our volunteers were telling us that there had been tensions for weeks linked to the overpopulation of the camp,” Auberge des Migrants Vice President Francois Guennoc said.
The number of people in the Grande-Synthe camp had swelled since the destruction last October of the squalid “Jungle” camp near Calais, about 40 kilometers away.
“Since the closure of Calais, there isn’t any other reception center on the coast,” said Guennoc.
According to several witnesses, disagreements arose after an increase in the number of Afghans who arrived from the “Jungle” camp.
“I thought it was normal that the Kurds were here, it was their camp, and we (Afghans) had Calais,” Emal said. “But Calais doesn’t exist any more.”
The Afghans were apparently unhappy at being put up in the communal kitchens while the Kurds slept in chalets, local sources said.
The brawl was the latest in several violent incidents at the camp, with police intervening last month after five men were injured in a fight. Another man was stabbed in November.
Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux announced plans to close the camp in March, citing public order problems.
The government also believes the camps encourage people to travel to northern France where they seek to break into trucks heading to Britain or pay smugglers to help them get across the Channel.
Migrants have been encouraged to register asylum applications in France, but many are determined to travel to Britain for family or language reasons, or because they believe work opportunities are more plentiful in Britain.
Repeated break-ins around ports in northern France have caused delays to travelers and truck drivers. Local residents have also complained about the damage done to the image of their area.


UN: Nearly 71 million now displaced by war, violence at home

Updated 19 June 2019
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UN: Nearly 71 million now displaced by war, violence at home

  • The figures are bound to add fuel to a debate at the intersection of international law, human rights and domestic politics
  • UNHCR said 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of last year, up from about 68.5 million in 2017

GENEVA: A record 71 million people have been displaced worldwide from war, persecution and other violence, the UN refugee agency said Wednesday, an increase of more than 2 million from last year and an overall total that would amount to the world’s 20th most populous country.
The annual “Global Trends” report released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees counts the number of the world’s refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people at the end of 2018, in some cases following decades of living away from home.
The figures, coming on the eve of World Refugee Day on Thursday, are bound to add fuel to a debate at the intersection of international law, human rights and domestic politics, especially the movement in some countries, including the US, against immigrants and refugees.
Launching the report, the high commissioner, Filippo Grandi, had a message for US President Donald Trump and other world leaders, calling it “damaging” to depict migrants and refugees as threats to jobs and security in host countries. Often, they are fleeing insecurity and danger themselves, he said.
The report also puts a statistical skeleton onto often-poignant individual stories of people struggling to survive by crossing rivers, deserts, seas, fences and other barriers, natural and man-made, to escape government oppression, gang killings, sexual abuse, militia murders and other such violence at home.
UNHCR said 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of last year, up from about 68.5 million in 2017 — and nearly a 65 percent increase from a decade ago. Among them, nearly three in five people — or more than 41 million people — have been displaced within their home countries.
“The global trends, once again unfortunately, go in what I would say is the wrong direction,” Grandi told reporters in Geneva. “There are new conflicts, new situations, producing refugees, adding themselves to the old ones. The old ones never get resolved.”
The phenomenon is both growing in size and duration. Some four-fifths of the “displacement situations” have lasted more than five years. After eight years of war in Syria, for instance, its people continue to make up the largest population of forcibly displaced people, at some 13 million.
Amid runaway inflation and political turmoil at home, Venezuelans for the first time accounted for the largest number of new asylum-seekers in 2018, with more than 340,000 — or more than one in five worldwide last year. Asylum-seekers receive international protection as they await acceptance or rejection of their requests for refugee status.
UNHCR said that its figures are “conservative” and that Venezuela masks a potentially longer-term trend.
Some 4 million people are known to have left the South American country in recent years. Many of those have traveled freely to Peru, Colombia and Brazil, but only about one-eighth have sought formal international protection, and the outflow continues, suggesting the strains on the welcoming countries could worsen.
Grandi predicted a continued “exodus” from Venezuela and appealed for donors to provide more development assistance to the region.
“Otherwise these countries will not bear the pressure anymore and then they have to resort to measures that will damage refugees,” he said. “We are in a very dangerous situation.”
The United States, meanwhile, remains the “largest supporter of refugees” in the world, Grandi said in an interview. The US is the biggest single donor to UNHCR. He also credited local communities and advocacy groups in the United States for helping refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.
But the refugee agency chief noted long-term administrative shortcomings that have given the United States the world’s biggest backlog of asylum claims, at nearly 719,000. More than a quarter-million claims were added last year.
He also decried recent rhetoric that has been hostile to migrants and refugees.
“In America, just like in Europe actually and in other parts of the world, what we are witnessing is an identification of refugees — but not just refugees, migrants as well — with people that come take away jobs that threaten our security, our values,” Grandi said. “And I want to say to the US administration — to the president — but also to the leaders around the world: This is damaging.”
He said many people leaving Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador through Mexico have faced violence by gangs and suffered from “the inability of these governments to protect their own citizens.”
The UNHCR report noted that by far, the most refugees are taken in in the developing world, not wealthy countries.
The figures marked the seventh consecutive year in which the numbers of forcibly displaced rose.
“Yet another year, another dreadful record has been beaten,” said Jon Cerezo of British charity Oxfam. “Behind these figures, people like you and me are making dangerous trips that they never wanted to make, because of threats to their safety and most basic rights.”