Huge fire destroys French migrant camp

Philippe HUGUEN, Baptiste BECQUART
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French firemen inspect a burnt hut at the Grande-Synthe migrant camp on the outskirts of Dunkirk, on April 11, 2017

A huge fire has gutted one of France's biggest migrant camps 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.

Michel Lalande, a senior local official in France's Nord region, told reporters that authorities were working to find alternative accommodation for the migrants, most of whom want to travel to Britain.

"Three gymnasiums have been put to use to provide shelter," he said.

Firefighters said at least 10 people were injured in the inferno overnight, which was visible several kilometres away. It followed an outbreak of fighting that required riot police to intervene.

Only around 70 of 300 huts and a handful of communal buildings were still intact on Tuesday morning. The others were smouldering embers or burned beyond repair, along with their contents.

- Scramble for other accommodation -

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 neighbours.

Ahead of the presidential election in two weeks' time, the fire quickly became a campaign issue, with far-right leader Marine Le Pen saying it underlined the need to control immigration.

"This chaos must stop," she said. "All migrants' camps will be dismantled after my election if the French people elect me as head of state."

Her main rival for the presidency, Emmanuel Macron, has pledged to scrap a treaty with Britain under which France has secured its northern border to stop migrants crossing the narrow Channel sea.

"We will need to take up discussions with Britain again on the situation which leaves us acting as border guards for this country," the secretary general of Macron's party, Richard Ferrand, told the LCI channel.

As politicians discussed solutions in Paris, local authorities and police were investigating the cause of the brawl and whether the fire was started deliberately, as alleged by some local officials.

One camp resident, Emal, told AFP that the fighting had started after a football game among Afghans when the ball struck a Kurd from Iraq "who insulted the Afghan people".

- Spate of violent incidents -

The Afghans tried to catch him but he managed to escape before returning with a gang of armed friends, Emal said.

A Kurdish man, Kawan, told AFP that some Afghans had kicked a Kurd "and in the evening Kurdish people, all coming, and starting to fight again."

A police source, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said there had been several bouts of fighting that culminated in a massive brawl involving around 600 people at 9:30 pm (1930 GMT) Monday.

Lalande said six people had been injured with knife wounds.

Local association Auberge des Migrants and the mayor of Grande-Synthe, Damien Careme, said that strains from overcrowding were the underlying cause of the violence.

Europe has faced its biggest migrant crisis since World War II over the last few years as millions of people have fled war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

"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 mostly male inhabitants in the Grande-Synthe camp swelled after the destruction last October of the squalid "Jungle" camp near Calais, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) away.

According to several witnesses, disagreements arose after an increase in the number of Afghans who arrived from the "Jungle".

"I thought it was normal that the Kurds were here, it was their camp, and we (Afghans) had Calais," Emal told AFP. "But Calais doesn't exist anymore."

Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux announced plans to close the camp in March, citing public order problems after a spate of fights and stabbings.

The government also believes the camps encourages 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, language or work reasons.

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