Refugee charities in northern France have issued a robust response to the Calais Mayor’s decision to ban food distribution in a large part of the town, vowing to continue to provide aid to refugees in spite of the mayoral decree.
Seven organisations that offer support for refugees in Calais have signed a statement expressing their “determination to continue their action”, stating that the reason they do this work is because the authorities “do not fulfil their own obligations in terms of law and humanity”.
A decree issued on Wednesday by Mayor Natacha Bouchart prohibits organisations from distributing aid in Dunes, a large industrial zone in Calais close to where the “Jungle” camp was located before it was demolished in October, ordering for a “ban on abusive, prolonged and repeated occupants of the industrial zone”. It was not clear how such a ban would be implemented.
In the joint statement – signed by L’Auberge des Migrants, Care4Calais, Help Refugees, RCK, Salam, Secours Catholique and Utopia 56 – the charities state that their aid distributions “contribute to vital needs [...] not only in terms of food, but also to supply blankets and warm clothes to avoid the possibility of death on the street”.
It proceeds to state that the distributions are important because they help “ensure the safety of Calais residents and traders” and provide “an opportunity to identify medical problems, especially for minors who are victims of the cold”, as well as making it possible for refugees to receive legal advice.
The statement reads: “After attempting to prevent Catholic Relief to allow the migrants present on Calais to wash, the Mayor of Calais wants to prohibit associations, on the pretext of disturbing public order, to distribute meals.
“The decree produced by the Mayor is inhuman and unworthy. The associations do this work because the State and public authorities do not fulfil their own obligations in terms of laws and humanity.
“The signatory organisations declare their determination to continue their action. We will continue our distributions.”
Following the announcement of the ban, Annie Gavrilescu of Help Refugees told The Independent: “We’re publishing this response in the least provocative way possible. We just want legal and safe places where we can continue our work.
“We don’t want to create more animosity with the authorities or with the police. We are just trying to keep people fed but from a legal and safe place, which is obviously proving more and more difficult.
“The decree specifies the industrial zone, so what we’re trying to do is go outside it, and trying to keep people safe outside it. But we don’t know how the enforcement of this ban will take shape, so we’re just evermore careful.”
Asked whether she was shocked by the ban, Ms Gavrilescu said: “From a humanitarian perspective, it’s obviously shocking that a mayor is trying to prevent us from feeding children.
“But from a realistic perspective, having been here a long time, the actions of this mayor are not surprising.”
A volunteer at the Legal Shelter, an organisation in Calais that provides legal support to refugees, told The Independent the mayor’s order would not discourage refugees from coming to Calais.
“This will absolutely not work for stopping people from coming to Calais. They don’t come thinking that they will have food from organisations. They come for other reasons than just the distribution of food. It’s just an accessory.
“It’s not the reason why refugees are coming to Calais, and of course they will continue to come even if there is no food distribution. There have always been people in Calais, many of them hidden without asking for any food distribution. It will never change.
“If there are police controls when there are food distributions, of course people will just hide themselves more to avoid being arrested.
“In 2015 they passed an order to stop people pitching tents in public spaces. It’s the kind of decision they always try to take, just to try to make it more difficult for everyone. But in 20 years this has never worked.
“The charities will probably just move the point of distribution. If many more orders like this come into effect, we are likely to take legal action.”
Sue Jex, head of UK operations for refugee support charity Care4Calais, said in a statement: “We are appalled at the ban on distributing food to refugees in Calais, which deprives the most vulnerable people – including unaccompanied minors – of the basic human right to food.
“This humanitarian crisis is far from resolved and we should not be turning our backs on those who need our support most. We would urge those in positions of authority to lift bans on food distribution, and act now to secure the lives of refugees urgently.”
Reasons given for the ban in the mayoral decree include “the regular presence of individuals and groups in the industrial zone for the purposes of meal distribution to migrants” and concern that “the continued and massive occupation in the area are of the nature that they could trouble the tranquillity, health and public security”.
Ms Bouchart stated her reasoning for the ban in a press statement on Friday, saying she would “not accept” seeing the economy of Calais “damaged again”.
“In recent days, a regular and massive presence of individuals has been noted in the industrial zone of Dunes due to the distribution of meals to migrants,” the statement read.
“I was alerted by people who use the area, notably business bosses and people in the economic world, following tensions arising with organisations and migrants at the time of these distributions.
“As I have indicated to the director of the cabinet of the Prime Minister during a meeting on 25 January, I will not accept that our economy be damaged again, just as it is beginning to arise from serious difficulties that it confronted last year.”
The Mayor went on to say that former settlements of refugees in Calais have caused “trauma” for residents of the town, and asserted that she must consequently take “necessary measures” to avoid a repeat of the situation.
“Over the months, or indeed years, everyone has been able to see all the humanity that the Calaisian population has shown despite a unique situation in France, which has been a traumatic experience for many Calaisians,”she said.
“Because we have suffered so much, because I have been fighting on behalf of industry players to defend the interests of Calais, I must take all necessary measures to prevent a repeat of a situation that has gone on for far too long.”