LONDON: Two Iraqi migrants have been hospitalized in serious conditions after rival people-smuggling gangs fired on each other in northern France.
Fighting erupted at the Grande Synthe camp in Dunkirk after gangs quarreled over territory for launching their small boats into the English Channel.
The camp, the largest in France, is reportedly controlled by Kurdish gangs, who organize territory and allocate migrants spaces on small boats. Up to 500 people are expected to live there, though this can fluctuate rapidly according to trips on the Channel.
The Times newspaper was told by a migrant that he saw men with rifles and pistols during the fighting on Sunday, with gunshots also heard on Friday. Bullet casings were found on the scene after the authorities came in.
The Dunkirk public prosecutor’s office has started investigating the incidents, but few expect any witnesses to come forward and provide evidence. The rapidly changing population also adds problems for the police, with many witnesses at risk of fleeing for Britain at any moment. The two men in hospital are so critically injured that they cannot give statements.
The witness said: “I saw men with guns, one a pistol, another with a rifle. It was many, many shots fired. Previously we’ve had fights but it was very small. This time there were a lot of gunshots. The volunteers ran away.”
Another witness told Le Parisien that they “heard gunshots,” which sounded like “bursts of Kalashnikovs.” They added: “Everyone got down on the ground.”
Volunteer worker association Utopia 56 announced that “at least three people” were rushed to hospital after the violence. A helicopter was destroyed in the clashes, as police and ambulances rushed to the scene.
The violent gangs in northern France have long been a concern for British authorities receiving migrants.
UK Border Force officials told The Times that migrants were regularly facing threats of violence, often at gun or knifepoint, if they questioned the seafaring quality of the small boats.
Richard Lederle, from the crime and financial investigations unit in the Home Office, said: “It often isn’t an option of choosing to get into the boats. It will affect their profit margins and business models as gangs are competing with each other.”
Christopher Tilley, chief of staff at the unit dealing with Channel crossings, said: “A lot of their business relies on word of mouth — they don’t want people saying, ‘Don’t go with that gang because it’s unsafe’ so they force them to board even when the boats are unsafe. They are pushing people across to maximise the profits. It’s ruthless and cut-throat.”