A huge blaze has ripped through a French migrant camp reducing it to “a heap of ashes” with at least 10 people injured.
The fire destroyed the Grande-Synthe camp outside the northern French city of Dunkirk late on Monday, a regional chief said.
The camp was home to some 1,500 people, living in closely-packed wooden huts, and had recently seen an influx in arrivals.
“There is nothing left but a heap of ashes,” Michel Lalande, prefect of France’s Nord region, told reporters at the scene as firefighters continued to battle the flames.
“It will be impossible to put the huts back where they were before.”
Lalande claimed the blaze had been started after a fight on Monday afternoon between Afghan and Kurdish migrants, which he said left six injured with knife wounds.
Reuters reports that riot police intervened in the brawl, which saw clashes between security forces and more than 100 migrants.
One migrant is in a critical condition after being hit by a car on a highway outside the camp.
Later a massive plume of smoke rose from the camp, which was visible from several kilometres away.
Officials linked the fight with the fire that broke out hours later but stressed that an investigation is needed to determine the fire’s cause. Police refused to comment on the clash and the fire.
Firefighters worked to contain the flames lapping the night sky and devouring the fragile shelters of migrants who were evacuated bit by bit to local gymnasiums. The prefect, or 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. “We don’t know exactly for what they fight” but just look at what happened today, he said, speaking English.
“We are refugees here in France. We don’t have any place… We don’t know what to do. We lost everything,” Albidani said.
French officials announced in mid-March that security forces were planning to start dismantling the camp following clashes at the site.
The population of the Grande-Synthe camp has swelled since the destruction last October of the squalid “Jungle” camp near Calais, about 40 kilometres away.
People smugglers were regularly spotted at the camp, offering passages to Britain for up to a thousand euros in cash.
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 30 kilometers to the west, that was dismantled by the state in October.
For more than a decade France’s northern coast has been a magnet for refugees and migrants trying to reach Britain, with French authorities repeatedly tearing down camps.