GRANDE-SYNTHE, France – Several hundred migrants have disappeared after they were evacuated from a camp in northern France that was ravaged by a shocking fire that left 10 injured, according to authorities and aid workers trying to ensure alternative shelter and calm tensions.
Police cordoned off the camp in the Dunkirk suburb of Grande-Synthe on Tuesday and investigators inspected the site to try to determine the cause of the Monday night fire, which broke out following a fight between rival groups of migrants.
Most of the camp near the English Channel is now reduced to the charred remains of wooden shelters and sparse belongings of the migrants, who converged on northern France in hopes 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 gymnasiums, including one set aside for children and families — but most of the other migrants remain unaccounted-for, the mayor and prefect told reporters Tuesday.
Doctors Without Borders, which set up the site a year ago to replace filthy makeshift camps in the region, is holding meetings Tuesday to decide what to do next. Other aid groups are planning to distribute meals Tuesday to migrants in the gymnasiums and anywhere else they are found around town.
The first priority is to find the migrants dispersed by the blaze, said Corenne Torre, head of the humanitarian group in France.
"We just don't know where they are," she told The Associated Press. 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.
She said that 10 migrants are in local hospitals with light injuries following the fire, which came hours after a clash involving up to 150 migrants.
Authorities say they believe the fire was set intentionally and was linked to a fight earlier Monday between Kurdish and Afghan migrant groups.
The camp will remain closed during the investigation, and local authorities will consider whether to open a new camp to replace it.
It's a sensitive issue in France just 12 days ahead of a presidential election in which immigration is a key issue. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and others are calling for strict border controls and a crackdown on migration.
"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."
"We are refugees here in France. We don't have any place. ... We don't know what to do. We lost everything," Albidani said.