Memorial to refugees…


Rivesaltes Memorial to a refugee crisis… this was France in 1942. What will be remembered of our treatment of refugees in future years?

The French concentration camp memorial at Rivesaltes near Perpignan has now finally opened. This abandoned boot was found by artist Nicole Bergé ( who painstaking assembled a poignant collection of memorabilia from the original site; empty bottles of all sizes, tin cans for holding food with handles of twisted wire, rusted forks and spoons, a lost handbag, even a tiny dancer fashioned from barbed wire.

The site is an old army camp, covering 4000 square metres of the arid Roussillon plain, overlooked by the craggy outline of the Corbières hills; hot, dry and subject to the terrifying blast of the Tramontane wind. It was considered unsuitable for horses by the army, but several thousand refugees ended up there; initially Spanish, then Jews and other “undesirables.” It became a collection point for the massive deportations in 1942- the Drancy of the South – and 2,251 Jews including 110 children were sent from here to Drancy and on to Auschwitz.

In 1998 all that remained were crumbling barracks and latrines and a lot of barbed wire. The army was about to bulldoze the lot when the president of the Pyrenées Orientales department, Christian Bourquin, stepped in to save it. The new museum is designed by Marseille architect, Rudi Ricciotti, (who is also responsible for the undulating glass roof of the new Islamic Art department of the Louvre.) It is intended to be as modest as possible, opaque and sunk into the ground, in order not to overwhelm the fragile vestiges that remain.

They say that the current refugee crisis is the worse since the Second World War, when 15 million were displaced. That was a terrible time, but then they had been through a war which had already killed 35 million people. Since then we have been through decades of peace and prosperity.   Will we be memoralising this period of refugees in future years with equal reluctance, shame and sadness.