French police break up camp where Channel tragedy victims stayed

Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters

Armed French police have broken up a makeshift migrant camp outside Dunkirk where the 27 people who died at sea last week stayed before they drowned in the Channel.

The basic site, by a canal outside the Grand-Smythe suburb, had no toilets or running water, but was nevertheless used by several hundred people, mostly Kurds from Iraq or Iran, hoping to travel illegally to the UK.

Photographs showed police in hazmat suits dismantling the site on Tuesday, a collection of tents and tarpaulins strapped between poles, with armed officers standing guard. Tents and unclaimed belongings were being picked up and thrown away in lorries.

The occupants, mostly men but also some families with children, will be dispersed to processing centres around the country in an attempt to remove them from northern France. However, many are likely to come back within days to try to cross the Channel again because they do not want to stay in the country.

Related: Death in the Channel: ‘My wife and children said they were getting on a boat. I didn’t hear from them again’

Last week the Guardian spoke to several English-speaking migrants who said they had returned as soon as they could. Karwan Tahir, an Iraqi Kurd from Sulaymaniyah, who had lived in Britain prior to 2006, said he had been sent to a hotel near Bordeaux but “came back on the train straight away; I got a friend to send me money for the ticket. I don’t want to be down there, I want to come to the UK.”

Many of the Iraqi Kurds trying to make the dangerous crossing have friends or family in Britain who will help with the £2,000 to £3,000 fee paid to people smugglers.

People had only been camping in the canal-side area for a couple of weeks, after a larger and better-equipped location closer to Grand-Smythe and its out-of-town hypermarket was demolished on the orders of the French interior minister, Gerald Darmanin. Heating at the new site was provided only by open fires on nights where the temperature regularly dropped below zero degrees.

Related: Kurdish woman is first victim of Channel tragedy to be named

Several people at the camp knew some of the 27 who drowned last Wednesday, after their dinghy deflated while they were attempting to cross the Channel. Darmanin said on Tuesday that France would “take care of the burial” of the victims.

Migrants numbers near Dunkirk had more than doubled from an estimated 400 to more than 1,000 – the total swelled by Belarus’s decision to open its borders to migrants from Iraq. Belarus security forces often helped people make it over to Poland, from where it was possible to travel by car, train and on foot to Dunkirk.

No refugee centre has existed in northern France since the UK and France reached an agreement that involved the closure of Sangatte camp in 2002. An informal camp, known as the Jungle, sprung up subsequently but it was demolished and shut down by the French authorities in 2016.

Since then, migrants have lived in a handful of smaller camps around Calais and Dunkirk, often dominated by particular nationalities. Charity workers say they are subject to regular raids by French police, with tents slashed or taken away, as well as being closed down when they are deemed to have become too large.

The number of migrants crossing the Channel has risen to 25,776 in 2021, up from 8,461 in 2020 and 1,835 in 2019, according to figures compiled by the BBC using Home Office data.

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