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Damien Carême
Mayor of Grande-Synthe, France
Awarded eighth place in World Mayor 2016

14 February 2017: Damien Carême has been Mayor of Grande-Synthe (population 24,000) since 2001. Grande-Synthe, a community of some 25,000 people on the outskirts of Dunkirk, is like many towns in northern France utilitarian rather than picturesque. The A16, a major highway connecting The Netherlands, Belgium and France, provides easy access to Calais and, through the Channel Tunnel, to Britain. Every day hundreds of trucks pass through Grande-Synthe on their way to England and often stop at a service station in the town. Some ten years ago, the first migrants from the Middle East and Africa arrived in Grande-Synthe, hoping to find truck drivers who would smuggle them to Britain or board lorries without the knowledge of the drivers. In those days, refugees would not remain in the town for more than a day.

With the arrival of women and children in 2008, the situation changed dramatically. Instead of managing to find a passage to Britain fairly easily, refugees took possession of some land and set up a makeshift camp. In the winter of that year, when the temperature dropped to minus 15 centigrade, the local authority of Grande-Synthe felt it had to intervene. It provided heated tents and toilet facilities. Mayor Carême recalls receiving a letter from the sub-prefecture (sous-préfecture) warning him that his humanitarian action was creating a pull factor and would lead to the arrival of more and more migrants, including people smugglers. The mayor responded by saying that if the town did not provide basic facilities, the migrants would start knocking at peoples’ doors.

The situation in the camp, while not ideal, remained manageable until, in the summer of 2015, the French government decided to seal off the Port of Calais thus preventing access to the ferries and the Channel Tunnel. In July of that year, the camp housed on average 60 refugees but two months later the number had increased to 190. Other small communities between Dunkirk and Lille were faced with similar challenges. By the end of September 2015, the situation threatened to get out of control. The number of refugees had reached 550 and criminal organisations were on the brink of taking control of the camp. Mayor Carême asked the security services for help.

By the end of 2015, after the number of refugees had risen to almost 3,000, the situation in the camp had reached crisis point. The conditions had become inhumane and totally intolerable. A new site was needed.

The local authority of Grande-Synthe found a piece of land, which the Mayor described as not ideal as it was wedged between the highway and thee railway line, but was the “least unsuitable”. Mayor Damien Carême then contacted international NGOs, such as ‘Doctors without Borders’, ‘Dentists without Borders’ and the Red Cross. The local authority of Grande-Synthe also decided to replace tents with wooden huts, large enough to allow seven people to sleep in dry conditions. The new camp was also to have a central kitchen, common dining areas, a legal office and medical facilities. ‘Doctors without Border’ provided two million euros, the Town of Grande-Synthe and and the Dunkirk Urban Community one million euros, while the French government offered no financial help. In March 2016, the refugees in the old camp were transferred to the new facilities.

The new Grande-Synthe site was the first refugee camp in France that was built to internationally recognised standards. At the opening, Mayor Carême said that he and the citizens of Grande-Synthe had overcome the failure of the state. “We could no longer bear the sight of so many children living in such squalid conditions in the original camp”.

In July 2016, the French government announced that it would start funding the Grande-Synthe camp.

Typical tribute:
I fully support the candidacy of Damien Carême. I have had the chance to work with him, directly and see how he supported the energy, environmental and social program that our region, formerly called Nord-Pas de Calais developed in 2013. In 2012, I was in RIO + 20 with him and could appreciate the humanity, the broad mindedness and the vision of Damien. What he has done is amazing: not only his approach for refugees has been unique in our country but he had to fight the French State to get allowance for a decent camp. He's been fighting hard with transparency and full dedication, and at the end he succeeded. Damien is someone that I appreciate as a beautiful human being: this says it all. MORE

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