Photograph: HINA / Tamino PETELINŠEK / STA / mm

Damien Careme has decided it is time to act. "I cannot take it any more, seeing these pictures, seeing these children," the mayor of the Dunkirk suburb of Grande-Synthe says.

There are up to 2,500 refugees and migrants living in the coastal town of northern France, waiting for the opportunity to move on from the wasteland strewn with tents and rubbish that they currently call home.

Now the town council has had enough. With the help of medical aid charity Doctors Without Borders, known by their French acronym MSF, local authorities have begun erecting proper shelters. But the work has seen municipal officials treading on the toes of the state.

Across the stretch of land, the smell of burning wood and molten plastic permeates the air. The camp is usually one big swamp, apart from when temperatures hit freezing.

"This is a disgrace," Mergo Terzian, president for MSF France, says.

The humanitarian non-governmental organization has found new territory in this rich industrial region, with this form of aid deployment marking a first in Europe. The resources are in fact intended for developing countries, Terzian says.

However, MSF has granted 2 million euros (2.2 million dollars) in funding to the new Grande-Synthe camp.

"Life is not good here. It is cold," 20-year-old Isa tells dpa. His mother Runak does not speak English, so she coughs and gestures towards a crackling bonfire to demonstrate the impact of camp life on her health.

The Kurdish mother and son were forced to leave Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, where they faced persecution at the hands of the Islamic State terrorist militia. The 52-year-old woman once fought against Saddam Hussein as a member of the Peshmerga forces.

Now, like many others, they want to reach Britain. Few are tempted by French officials' offer to apply for asylum there.

Many refer to family ties on the other side of the channel, while others already have good command of English and are searching for better job opportunities.

But Paris and London have completely secured the harbour at Calais and the Channel Tunnel. Fencing measuring 4 metres and lined with barbed wire has been installed in a bid to keep undocumented migrants from crossing.

"Day and night, I try, but no chance," says Pshtiwan, a 25-year-old Kurd. For him, the camp is a "jungle."

But the barrier's desired effect as a deterrent has proven less than effective. Thousands live in a camp in Calais, which has essentially developed into a slum, characterized by a booming bootleg economy that has seen shops, restaurants and even a hairdressers emerge from the muck.

In the undeveloped Grande-Synthe camp 30 kilometres away, a settlement consisting of a few dozen ballooned in three months to makeshift accommodation for thousands.

"We really do have a humanitarian emergency here," says Amin Trouve Baghdouche of the aid organization Medecins du Monde. He criticized the situation on two counts: due to the worsening conditions and the French government's failure to act.

Now the excavators are rolling in as around five hectares of land, situated between a motorway and a railway line, are flattened to provide space for 500 heated tents.

The camp is to be divided into six zones, each with showering and toilet facilities. Space is also to be provided for kitchens and stalls set up by aid organizations. The scheme should be finished in four to five weeks.

Local authorities are putting 40,000 euros into the project. MSF will assist in building the camp, but afterwards will return to concentrating on medical care for the inhabitants.

The Grande-Synthe council is now looking for a second partner to help with the running of the facility, as well as extra funding from the state.

Local authorities have been met with reluctance from the French government, which for a spell was deliberating on whether to forbid the plans.

But Mayor Careme's concept is a small sticking plaster in a major humanitarian crisis. Many questions remain unanswered. Will the migrants want to move to the new camp? How long will it take before the capacity of the new camp is also at breaking point?

And what can be done to tackle people trafficking? When showers were built a couple of months ago, smugglers installed locks on the doors and began charging money for access, the mayor says.

For the head of MSF, Stephane Roques, it is about giving a signal to the state. "We will prove that it is possible and that it is not extremely expensive."

But he, too, admits that the fundamental issue in Grande-Synthe will not be solved easily. This place, he says, is the "most perfect illustration" of failed European politics.

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