Hundreds of refugees missing after fire at French camp

Update 1.42pm: Several hundred refugees have disappeared after they were evacuated from a camp in northern France that was ravaged by a fire that left 10 injured, according to authorities and aid workers.

Police cordoned off the camp in the Dunkirk suburb of Grande-Synthe and investigators inspected the site to try to determine the cause of last night’s fire, which broke out following a fight between rival groups.

Most of the camp near the English Channel is now reduced to the charred remains of wooden shelters and sparse belongings of the refugees, who converged on northern France in the hope of reaching Britain.

As many as 1,600 people were in the camp when the blaze broke out, according to the Grande-Synthe mayor and the prefect, the top government official for the region.

Some 500 were taken to three local gyms, including one set aside for children and families, but most of the other migrants remain unaccounted for, the mayor and prefect said.

Doctors Without Borders, which set up the site a year ago to replace filthy makeshift camps in the region, is holding meetings to decide what to do next.

Other aid groups are planning to distribute meals today in the gyms and anywhere else people are found around town.

The first priority is to find the refugees dispersed by the blaze, said Corenne Torre, head of the humanitarian group in France.

"We just don't know where they are," she said.

She estimated that at least 600 migrants remain unaccounted for. Some fear the authorities and others fear rejoining a camp with rival gangs, she said.

Earlier:

Hundreds of migrants have been evacuated after a huge blaze ravaged their camp in northern France.

The fire at the camp outside the post city of Dunkirk destroyed wooden shelters, and came hours after a clash involving up to 150 migrants, the prefecture of the region said.

Riot police moved into the camp to break up the trouble that one migrant said pitted Afghans against Kurds.

Five people were injured in the fight among 100 to 150 migrants, leaving three of them in hospital with knife wounds, the prefecture said.

Officials linked the fight with the fire that broke out hours later but stressed that an investigation is needed to determine its cause.

No injuries were immediately reported because of the blaze.

Firefighters worked to contain the flames lapping the night sky and devouring the fragile shelters of migrants who were evacuated to local gymnasiums. The prefect, the highest state official in the region, rushed to the scene.

"I lost all my documents," said an Iraqi migrant who identified himself only as Albidani, standing outside the camp. "I just have only this paper that says I'm a refugee in France."

He said Kurds and Afghans had clashed before the fire erupted, but he did not know why.

"We are refugees here in France. We don't have any place ... we don't know what to do. We lost everything," Albidani said.

Up to 1,500 migrants were living in the over-populated camp, the prefecture estimated,

The camp in the Dunkirk suburb of Grande-Synthe was set up a year ago by Doctors Without Borders.

The neat rows of wooden shelters replaced a squalid makeshift tent camp nearby rife with traffickers preying on migrants.

Humanitarian groups said the original camp was filthier and more dangerous than a huge makeshift camp in Calais, about 19 miles to the west, that was dismantled by the state in October.

The population of the new Dunkirk camp swelled after the one in Calais was torn down.

Clashes, as well as small fires, have occurred in the past in the La Liniere camp. French officials decided last month that the camp population must be reduced to 700 and security increased to keep out traffickers.

The authorities said the camp must be dismantled bit by bit with migrants housed in special centres, like the thousands of migrants evacuated from the Calais camp.

- AP


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