Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

The Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Dunkirk is to the Calais jungle as Milton Keynes is to London. Where Calais is only now having order imposed on a meandering medieval street plan, Grande-Synthe has been ordered from conception to execution. The result is that the two migrant communities could not feel more different.

Calais ‘jungle’ camp containers.

Grande-Synthe, the first migrant camp in France built to UN standards, is around one fifth the size of Calais. It is home to approximately 1,100 people, mostly in wooden huts with power and electrical lighting, with others living in large white refugee tents. The living quarters are bisected by a single straight road that runs the length of the camp. Around the main entrance are kitchens, welcoming information huts, distribution points and a laundry. There is also a school and, at least on the day I’m there, an unreliable surface for playing tennis (I hesitate to aggrandise the pop up net with lines marked out by rocks as a ‘tennis court’).

After speaking with Ben, a volunteer who is running a migrant census, I learn that the population at Grande-Synthe is overwhelmingly Iraqi Kurd (over 90%), with a scattering of Iranians, four Vietnamese and a solitary Kuwaiti. This gives the camp an ethnic and cultural homogeneity that Calais, with its jumbled compounds of Eritrean, Ethiopian, Syrian, Afghan, Pakistani, Sudanese and others will never have. (Milton Keynes compared to London again!)

The camp in Grande-Synthe opened with the blessing and encouragement of the local Green Party Mayor and it is managed by Utopia, a local charity. The day after we visited, their contract was up for renewal and one of Utopia’s employees was worried for his job. Any charities or organisations who have attempted to manage the communities in Calais have basically failed, and both the recent destruction of half the vast shanty town and the construction of more comfortable container living accomodation have been met with serious opposition, including violent resistence.

Grande-Synthe does seem to be home to more children, who zip up and down the road on donated bicycles, cruising for something to do with their summer. But the contrast that really strikes me is in enterprise. Although it has a larger population, in Calais there is enterprise galore: restaurants, shops, a barbers, churches, mosques, bicycle mechanics, schools, a library, bakeries, a youth centre, a play bus, as well as the bustle of constant construction as architects and carpenters get to work building something new.

Church in the Calais ‘jungle’ camp.

Grande-Synthe is quiet by comparison, a sleepy suburb. My Friend’s Cafe serves free tea and coffee, and when we passed a folk band were fiddling to a full tent. The school teaches all day every day, both English and French, and I’m sure that I missed much else besides. But the only migrant enterprise that I saw were a few roadside stalls, offering baguettes, biscuits and a few other essentials. That’s why I got quite so excited when I bumped into an Iraqi Kurd making a beehive.

There is, unquestionably, the scope and opportunity for people to take the initiative and build in Grande-Synthe, but something about the place seemed to stifle natural creativity. Perhaps it was that the essentials were provided: huts, food, clothes, bedding and toiletries. Perhaps it is simply a matter of time – Grande Synthe has only been open for just over two months.

Of course, no one wants anyone to go without the basics needed for a decent life, but I can’t help feeling that, instead of spending millions of euros on the top-down organisation of Grande-Synthe, and on the fortification and destruction of Calais, we should simply give the money directly to those who need it and allow free reign for their enterprise.

The ingenuity, enterprise and determination required to escape Iraq, Syria or Sudan and travel across land and sea to Northern France should be enough to convince the doubters. But if not then I implore them to visit Calais and see what miracles of architecture can rise from the wooden pallets that carry our plentiful food, clothes and toys. Or to visit Grande-Synthe and learn how bees can be cajoled into making life a little sweeter for everyone.


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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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