Scarred: An Impression of the Dunkirk Refugee Camp

In June 2023, Brother Johannes r Maertens of the London Catholic Worker visited the Dunkirk refugee camp in the Northern France with the charity Art Refuge and joined the local team of the NGO Doctors for the World. Here’s his report.

by Br. Johannes Maertens

Along the Dunkirk (Grand Synth) refugee camp there runs a path made of gravel, dirt, thorny bushes and shallow pits; the path lying between a railway track and a heavy-duty truck road. The women and men refugees and children walk up and down the path to get water, some food from the distribution tables in the afternoon or to try to see a nurse or medic. Some make use of supermarket trolleys to transport water but then take the dangerous road.

We drove up together in a caravan with the team of Doctors For The World on to the path with an ambulance, a psychosocial activity van, a car for transport to the hospital and a van for the information team.

Seventeen refugees from different countries came to the ‘caravan’ that afternoon all with their own specific questions.

Standing near our large map of the world spread out on thistles and dirt, two Afghan young men asked me if I knew their country? One spoke a good bit of English and his younger slim gentle friend didn’t. They showed me the route they took from Afghanistan to Dunkirk as they are on their way to England. These two young men were very motivated to make it.

Like these two young men a few hundred people live here in the camp, scattered and hidden in the green foliage, there are fewer people here than in the Calais camp, but the conditions are much worse. The landscape in Dunkirk is scarred by human activity, and people are scarred by the rough landscape and a lack of a real permanent human presence. Although many people pass by, refugees and volunteers, the place feels rough, desolate and not inhabited. Tents are hidden away in bushes. The stay of refugees in this temporary make shift camp is, in general very short, people come and go hoping to cross to England.

Meanwhile in the van a young woman took a seat waiting for the GP, and another young woman after her. I can’t write about their personal stories nor about our assumptions about them, these are not mine to tell. Blisters, ulcers, and wounds on feet and legs caused by the absence of clean water were treated; four refugees, of whom two women, were taken to hospital and when we drove away from the dusty thorny path I looked into the eyes of an Ethiopian man, who looked lost, desperate and above all very alone.

This report originally appeared in the summer 2023 issue of the London Catholic Worker newsletter.

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