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Voices #14: Refugee Women's Centre taken to the Police Station

Some things which are commonplace in Calais would never happen in Grande Synthe. This is the assumption with which we have been working for several years. Dismantlements happen in Calais to the point of becoming mundane. Whilst in Grande Synthe, each dismantlement is the subject of a meeting. The use of teargas by police on refugees and their personal belongings is far from surprising in the former, but it is in the latter. The general experience of volunteers and refugees with the police isn’t as violent in Grande Synthe as it is in Calais. This isn’t to say that living conditions are necessarily better in one than in the other. But the interactions with the police and authorities are simply not comparable.

That is, until last week. We are beginning to see some worrying parallels in the practices and language used by the police towards volunteers. On the morning of Thursday the 28th of June, the national police and OFII [French Office for Immigration and Integration] carried out an operation in the Dunkirk jungle. During such operations, the police and OFII usually block a perimeter around the camp, come in with large buses, and take people to accommodation centres managed by the state. On that day, the police and OFII removed many tents and personal belongings, and only offered accommodation to some. After the operation was over, more than 200 people were left in the camp with no access to shelter.

Usually, during police-led operations, organisations are not allowed into the camp, and are let in again around lunch time. However, on that day, police continued to block access to the camp. Throughout the afternoon, the message then became specific to British volunteers: members of the police forbade British volunteers to remain, enter the camp, park vehicles nearby, and distribute necessities to refugees. French volunteers from French organisations with French vehicles continued to be allowed into the camp with no questions asked.

Over the following days, the police present outside the camp explicitly blocked the work of “all foreign volunteers”, with some exceptions made for Belgian organisations. It may be worth mentioning that the Refugee Women’s Centre is a French registered charity. When volunteers mentioned that to the police, they responded that it didn’t matter, because the volunteers themselves weren’t French – an explicit instance of discrimination. Explanations and specifications of its application varied widely, depending on whom we asked and when.

The consequences on the ground have been ridiculous. On Friday evening, the Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) arrived with food and were denied entry to the camp. We had to spontaneously create a team of French volunteers, with French-registered vehicles, to improvise a sudden distribution, while the food was getting cold in the van. This involved ferrying the food, water, and hot tea into the camp, with smaller vehicles going back and forth in order to distribute the food 100 meters further away, in the camp RCK wasn’t allowed into. None of the volunteers had ever organised a food distribution before, though we were being advised by RCK. Although the distribution went well, this last minute chaos was utterly unnecessary – and RCK drove into the camp at 8pm to retrieve the material and empty containers as the police left their positions then because it was the end of their day.

It was tense. Every day, organisations and volunteers drove to the camp without knowing whether they would be allowed in, whether they might be able to park near it, whether they would be interrogated by the police. Last Friday, police took three volunteers of the organisation Mobile Refugee Support “for an ID check” to the Dunkirk police station. On Monday this week, three volunteers from the Refugee Women’s Centre were taken by police for questioning.

The volunteers were with families whom we support outside of the camp, when an unmarked car drove up to them, stopped, and men in police jackets suddenly came out to ask for their IDs. Two were carrying tear gas cans, one carried a baton, and all of them were carrying hand guns. They took two volunteers in the police car and one was asked to drive our van, with a police man, to the police station in Dunkirk. With no further explanation, the three volunteers were placed into a holding room, where they were kept for four hours. One at a time, they were taken out of the room for intense questioning about their identity, their family, their activities. They were also measured, photographed, were asked to give fingerprints. The atmosphere was worsened by comments and poor jokes by police officers about the refugees and about the volunteers themselves.

At no point were the volunteers informed about their rights, although this is a legal requirement in France. When they asked for a lawyer, they were told several times that they would have to stay overnight and sleep on the floor until they could see a lawyer in the morning. Several times, the volunteers asked why they were there. “[T]hey answered ‘because you are foreign citizens’. When asked again, one of them said ‘because we are the police’.” At 10pm, the three volunteers were finally released, having been given no information on what procedure this was and what would be done with the information they had given.

Such interactions with police and with the authorities are not common in Grande Synthe and point towards a shift in attitudes. We are currently inquiring regarding the legality of this situation. In the meantime we wish to raise our voices on the injustice that is spreading. Such shifts in policy are never aimed only at volunteers. They systematically come hand in hand with toughening interactions between the police and refugees.

Whilst legal support and legal action is always needed, it now feels more urgent than ever. It also seems to be efficient: this morning, the Conseil Constitutionnel (a French body determining whether laws are constitutional or not) ruled the “Délit de Solidarité” unconstitutional. This means that soon, we might witness the end of the criminalisation of volunteers. But in the meantime, we need more robust legal support. You can help us on this front, if you happen to know lawyers in this area of France, or by donating to help us cover our legal fees. And, as always, please help us raise awareness by talking about it to people around you. Blatant violations of people’s rights are occurring every single day at the British border and this must not be ignored.

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