Refugee Stakeholders

Before, during and after our stay in Grande-Synthe we were asked if there were official requests for mapping activities from stakeholders like NGOs or charities, if we were able to make bonds with them while on site, including options for further collaboration. Yes, we met stakeholders and yes, we made bonds and collaboration is already happening. But the decision makers we mostly interacted with were the camp residents themselves, be it in organised bodies, our mapfugee team members or individuals. They were our most important contacts and collaborators, their support was crucial for a successful and efficent work. Of course, talking to charitable organisations and NGO was part of networking and although important this served more as an additional source of information and input. This is in parts due to the informal situation of the camp which subsequently fosters grassroot structures and self-organisation. Nonetheless the reception of refugee communities as equal partners, take into account their needs and demands, interact with them like any other civil society stakeholders appears to be of crucial importance and needs to be more implemented in humanitarian work. There is not always the place and time to do that, vulnerable persons on their journey or living in miserable conditions might have other needs and demands. But as soon as there is a chance to involve them in the process of improving living conditions, better management and outreach to vulnerable and disregarded individuals, it must be done. They are actors from the beginning on and this has to be acknowledged.

Get involved

The mapping activities in the camps will continue. It won´t be easy. communication and coordination is challenging, there are misunderstandings. The main problem is the lack of equipment, continous training and recruitment of new mappers. We need support on various levels, donations to our crowdfunding campaign are very welcome of course, but providing second hand items like laptop, tablet,  GPS devices, batteries and mice, financing new printed maps and guides for hand-out are of equal importance. Another way to get involved is presence on site: support camp mappers, help with training, interaction with the refugee community and organisations. More topics like connectivity, electricity, mapping apps, map styles are discussed on our mailing list , this is an opportunity to contribute remotely.

Joint achievements

After two weeks of challenges and valuable experiences we are able to present the printed DIN A1 maps at the Refugee Welcome Center. We attach them visibly at this prominent and popular space, where they immediately attract the attention of residents and volunteers passing by. Especially the surroundings map causes a lot of interest and leads to discussions and inqueries. And of course, besides positive response we also get suggestions and critical remarks, which features and names are missing and what should be improved in the rendering.

Small format maps are distributed to the refugee council that will use them to manage the distribution of residents to shelters, and to Utopia56, the association that runs the camp and offered us kind support (and chairs!) during the time of our stay. The translation of the map content to Kurdish and Arabic has been done by our refugee team members. As soon as we have resources these multilanguage maps will be printed and made available to the camp residents.

To finalize and produce printed maps was one of our main deliverable in this project, and we can say we have met this goal, although there are still improvements and refinements needed. But there is now a basemap of the camp and its surroundings that can be built upon and used for various causes: orientation and finding directions  for new arrivals and volunteers, better contingency planning for associations and NGOs, communication and interaction within the camp community as fostered by the refugee council.

Equally important as the provision of accurate and useful camp maps was the training and interaction with the camp residents. We met persons with differing professional background and educational levels, some immediately understood the techniques and procedure of mapping and were able to edit and clean the data independently after a short while, while others preferred to simply go out with fieldpapers and a GPS to collect waypoints and traces. Some joined us only for a few hours, others came nearly everyday. But everyone showed curiosity, open-mindedness and ambition and was eager to transfer the knowledge about their living conditions to an offline and online available map. It was a joy to see their reaction to the many possibilities OpenStreetMap offers, it was hard for them to believe they actually could add to this worldwide database.

All map files and the bus guide are available for download as pdf and png  here

Final review and a Fieldtrip

Our last days were full of intense work, as we wanted to meet also the last goal set prior to the start of the project: digitization and rendering of the data collected on the ground to make it available to camp residents in printed format.  We started printing test maps on the weekend, and exhibited them at the Refugee Welcome Center to give as many people as possible a chance to review and provide feedback. Our trained mappers were by now involved in refining and detailed data editing in JOSM, learned more about tags and good practices in mapping. As usual, new mappers kept dropping in, which gave us the chance to head out once more and collect missing data with GPS. Nearly everyday a new feature pops up at the camp, be it shop, restaurant, bicycle repair, tipi or vegetable beds.

There was a huge demand from the residents to have a map of the camp surroundings (“how to go to…”) So we headed out for a fieldtrip to the nearby lake, the commercial center and busstops. We investigated potential ways to get to the camp, and identified safe routes and alternative directions to those commonly used. To complete this task we had to rely on the knowledge and experience of our refugee mappers who knew much more than us about the dynamics between the camp and the destinations outside.  We discussed and debated what to put on the map and finally agreed to limit the area displayed to the commercial center and a small number of bus stops nearby.

Now we faced the problem how to visualize the missing points of interest like ATMs, post office, Western Union and train station which are situated in the center of Dunkerque which would not be part of our surroundings map. A camp resident threw in the idea of a printed guide in A5 for handout, and use icons and simple Kurdish and English terms to give residents and new arrivals a better orientation and enable them to reach their destinations safely. Combined with the maps we would then have a complete set of points and areas of interest. He invested lots of time and energy in creating this visual guide, from design to translation to communication with the camp residents and associations.

Bus guide.jpg

Mappers from London

By Harry Wood

I joined the mapfugees team last weekend, along with my friend Robert Scott. As big London OpenStreetMappers we’re very close to Dunkirk. This is very convenient, and at the same time it’s embarrassing. After years of participating remotely in Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team responses to disasters in far flung places like Haiti and the Philippines, I feel embarrassed that something we might describe as a humanitarian crisis, has been playing out just 114 miles from where I live.

So for the two of us, it was a drive and a ferry direct to Dunkirk. The same ferry which the refugees are desperate to get aboard. Arriving at the same ferry port which is heavily fortified with barbed-wire to prevent them doing so. The politics and wider issues of migrants and border controls are complex and pretty unsolveable it seems to me, but arriving at the Grande-Synthe camp, and meeting refugees face to face certainly gave me a new perspective on things.


The first guy I met, used to work in a library in Iraq. After accompanying us on a GPS tracing session to pinpoint the camp library, he invited us for tea in his shelter a few square metres shared with two other guys. It seems to be a popular ritual to share tea and have a long chat, perhaps because they know tea is a big thing in England. We joked that he was only interested in getting to the UK because we’re into tea. He laughed but then said “My friend, we’re not interested in tea, we just want a better life”. He said he’d travelled for a month, including a boat crossing. He had been sharing a shelter with three others, but one of them recently emailed him to say he’d made it to the UK. He described the violent people-smugglers who come into the camp at night, and he appeared upset as he told us they had searched his possessions and taken his Iraqi passport by force.


We did some mapping. Not much mapping, since a lot had already been done, but we added more details: positions of embankments, address numbering corrections, building tag refinements. There were also quite a few new things being constructed in the camp. Whenever possible we involved refugees in the process of mapping the camp. On the second day I wanted to try to load some of their android phones with offline mapping apps (OSMAnd or  MAPS.ME) but we hit quite a few technical issues. The kind of thing I’ve read about other field teams having. Shaky internet connections. Dying batteries. I guess it’s good to experience that first-hand. It gave me a few ideas for better prep next time I’m faced with this kind of thing.

While failing to load android apps, I got talking to another guy. He invited me to drink tea with him and his wife and two cheerful little kids. He had a son aged 6 and a daughter aged 7. They were very friendly and image3welcoming, but spoke little english. I had a very slow conversation with him, using google translate on his phone, and all relayed to his wife. Again they had spent about a month travelling to get to Dunkirk. He had worked as a sports teacher in Iraq. He mimed to explain how they had left because of the constant bombing and gun fire every night. I can imagine there wasn’t much call for sports teachers or any kind of life for his two young kids in that environment. I asked him how much stuff they had travelled with. His wife started crying when he relayed that question. I guess they were once a reasonably well off middle-class family, but they left it all behind and ended up here with nothing but a shed and some blankets. I worried that they might think I was able to help them get into the UK somehow, so I explained that I was just here to try to make life in the camp a little better, by creating a map.

I had that intense conversation just before we had to head off. I feel rather haunted by it. It definitely gave me some things to reflect on, as Robert and I casually waived our UK passports and drove onto the ferry home.

I’m sorry we had to leave so soon, as there is more work to be done helping people use the maps. I hope Katja can continue the fantastic work she’s been doing with a rolling cast of different OpenStreetMappers supporting the mapfugees project at this camp and back at Calais.

Connected refugees

by Quentin, PhD student, Sociology of Migration, University of Telecom Paris Tech

Migrants are the actors of a culture of bonds. This is an agreed postulate in the contemporary migration researches which has never be so true than when you look at the entrance of the refugees camp of Grande Synthe.

The “Charging center” is literally the heart of the camp, this is the first building we meet, even before the kitchen area or the petrol distribution point. Dozens of power lines, chargers and smartphones stack up and get tangled under this old porch. Refugees are waiting, discussing, meeting each other or playing football until their batteries are full again.


Our mapping process is close to the end, the most distant part of the camp remains to be explore, the living areas too – places to eat, places for the children to play… These areas change all the time : a bike workshop just appears, it was not there the day before. We could spend time and time again there would still be new things to map.

Some refugees are waiting for us to continue the tasks. As I discovered the camp, A. ( who arrives at Grande Synthe only a few days ago ) proposes to make me visit the place and to teach me the good practices of cartographers. He already masters all the tools.

Our approach combines GPS and field papers that A. live annotates, following the middle road of the camp. He puts POI, then a row of trees, a “Coffee Shop” that he insists to rename “Coffee and Tea Shop”. Well naming the places is important, making his own mental map of the camp to become reality. I mark with the GPS all the points he chooses to highlight. We navigate from place to place, building his personal wayfinding process through his relation with the camp. We reveal the structure of the camp, this will be really useful for the other associations in the goal of future developments planning.


Mapping the camp with A is also the occasion for him to tell me his story, his journey. He reveals himself. We meet other refugees, speak with them, they are curious, interested in what we are doing, mapping the camp his definitely a way to create new links, new connections between residents, between volunteers. We discover that in term of mapping, the needs of the refugees are already far from the camp, they want to know how to go safely to the lake to find fishes, how to go to town center, how to go outside …


We continue with the digitalization of our work. Pointing out, drawing , categorizing and uploading everything to open street map. We must act quickly, our computers have limited autonomy, even for us, the life of a battery is important. The camp as a whole seems to be organized around this need of recharging.

A.and me become friend on facebook and take a lot of selfies. His smartphone is full of app, much more than mine. Facebook, whatsapp and viber are the most used. Sygic gives him a GPS without internet connection,n to find good direction during the journey. He speaks with his family, his parents or his friends who are still in Iraq. Applications help him to increase his desire of presence, being here and there at the same time. Refugees are the modern navigators, using smartphone as a compass.

At the end of the day the camp empties slowly, there is less agitation but the “Charging Center” is still full of people, trying to get a network. How many of them will attempt the crossing tonight ? Keeping hope may sometimes be only the result of a living 3G connection.

Filling in the grid

Our fourth day in the camp, and we start to be known a bit… We get a hug on our arrival from a Utopia volunteer and a big smile from the guys who mapped with us yesterday. Today we brought not only our five gps-devices, but also equipment to get the mapping really started!

We installed our table and chairs and most importantly, the router connected with a solar panel which will provide us with internet connection (thanks Bibliothèques sans Frontières!). While Johan and Blake were setting up our little mapping headquarter, Katja and Jorieke started already to explain to curious refugees what we are doing: make them making a map of their own living environment!

Thanks to work of Jo and Blake the day before, we could print today also our first field papers. With help of the plan made by MSF for the initial construction of the camp, we were able to add the footprints of the shelters and buildings on OpenStreetMap which we subsequently printed in full color with the printer donated to the project by Jo.

Once on site, we started to learn some interested refugees how to map the camp with help of the field papers. It was amazing how fast they learned! “In the north of the camp, you see the highway, and in the South you see the train. Then at the entrance you see the charging center, you know, that place where you go to charge the battery of  your phone when it died.” Those are clear reference points for the refugees which consequently were mapped out the first.

It was a day of running around with gps’s and field papers. We as externals got to know again a bit better the camp, but also the residents learned more about their actual living environment, especially the new arrivals. About 10 new persons arrive every day. For them a map of the camp could be a real asset; to find the adult school, the entrance to the doctors, the mothers and children center, etc.

With three refugee mappers continuously at our side, the setup of our little mapping corner and curious residents all around us, we could say this day was a success!

See the post on Facebook.

Mapping starts!

The Welcome Center turns out to be the a spot designed to get in contact and attract people. We furnished our mapping corner with a foldable table and chairs. Within short time a few curious people approach us, wanting to know more. We show the blank map, talk about potential problems new arrivals and refugees with poor English knowledge face without an adequate map. As we find out, the rapid growth of the camp even challenges long-term refugees.

The field mapping is done in buddy teams of two for efficiency and safety reasons, collecting GPS data on the go. After a short explanation of the device menu and its main functions, we start in the surrounding of the Welcome Center, marking the POI with waypoints and taking notes in order to create a skeleton of the structure. Light Poles serve as points of reference, combined with the data from the main “middle street “ the divide the camp in sections. The teams collect data and information of the entrance and new arrival area which includes the charging place, medical clinic, laundry and petrol distribution point.

The lack of communal spaces, food and NFI distribution points in the backmost, single men part of the camp, where 60% of the camp population lives is obvious. The area is deserted, shelters are not personalized, only few open fires and cooking activities, apparently residents of this area prefer to spend their time in the entrance and family area  as it offers multiple attractive options to interact, play and communicate. This fact may relate to the presence of human traffickers, cigarette smugglers and drug dealers in the back part of the camp, leading to violence, tensions and a feeling of insecurity and threat for the residents in this area. The mafia gang activities and fights occur exclusively during the night, preventing the residents not involved from finding sleep and rest. This results in a reduced ability to participate in camp activities concentrate and organise and adds to already existing mental health issues like PTSD, depression and anxiety.

See this post on Facebook.