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Voices #16: On privilege and activism (part 1)

Part 1 – Shelter

My name is Caroline. I am one of the co-founders of the Refugee Women’s Centre. And a few months ago, it hit me that I was part of the 1%. You know, the evil one percentile that we stood up against, during days and nights, at Occupy protests. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a product of private schools, my parents aren’t business people, I wear the same trousers and jacket every day, I live in a caravan, and my Asian heritage even enables me to pose as a non-white female. So when I say 1%, I mean on the scale of the world – not France, England, or even Europe.

Still, it was quite something to realise that I was part of the 1% most fortunate on this planet. Having grown up in Paris, I always considered myself as part of the minority. It’s all relative: I was one of the only kids whose parents weren’t both white French, all my friends had much nicer homes, newer clothes, and fancier birthday parties. So when it really hit me how much I was part of the elite, whether I had realised it or not, I started seriously asking myself: What am I doing with that privilege?

Last week, I got part of an answer. I enable those who don’t have a voice to be heard. Let me explain what happened, from the start.

In Northern France, we have seen decades of informal camps forming, growing, and then closing. Multiple living spaces have successively existed along the coast and in the region; all with varying degrees of atrocious living conditions, inhumane and degrading. Almost none of the people we support in the camps wish to stay in France or to start any administrative procedure in France, as they are here to reach the UK. This makes them “en situation irrégulière” in France. For this reason, they are not eligible for any accommodation provided by the state, with the exception of emergency shelters which are for a couple of nights only.

It might be obvious to you, but this is what I’ve learned over the past two years: shelter is absolutely central to most other fundamental human rights. With access to shelter, you have access to water, sanitation, warmth, you can rest properly, be in a better mind-set to receive legal advice, generally have a better health (mental and physical) and probably have an address too, which is crucial for administrative procedures. As myself and other charities operate in informal camps, we often battle for people’s rights to be respected in the camp: for there to be drinking water, hot meals, legal advisors etc. But really, a lot of it comes down to having a roof above your head.

In the autumn of 2017, the state started doing something new in Grande Synthe: putting in place buses every morning to take those who wanted to accommodation centres called CAO and CAES. These types of shelters were created for asylum seekers, whilst their claim was being processed. In the Nord, the préfet of Lille has decided that these accommodation centres could be exceptionally used by people who weren’t asking for asylum. They would be able to stay for a maximum of one month, if they didn’t start any administrative procedure. If, however, they decided to ask for asylum in France, they would be able to stay sheltered.

Little parenthesis on local politics:

The section in red is the Hauts-de-France. This map (above) shows the regional breakdown of the French territory. As you can see, we are in the most Northern Region of France, right by Belgium and England. Each region is broken down into départements. In the Hauts-de-France, there are five départements: the Nord, Pas-de-Calais, Somme, Oise, and Aisne.:

Each département is overseen by a préfecture, which sits in one of the cities. For instance, for the Nord, the préfecture is in Lille, and for the Pas-de-Calais it is in Arras. Each prefecture is headed by a préfet who has been directly appointed by the President, and who must enact national policies at a local level. In order to do that, the main préfecture has sous-préfectures in other major cities of the département. As such, there is a sous-préfecture in Dunkirk and one in Calais. Both are under the authority of a different prefecture, as they are in two different départements. Therefore, when we and other charities talk with the state, it is via the sous-préfectures. In contrast, the mayors have been elected by the people living in the cities. Therefore the mayors do not have the same political agenda as the state (ultimately, as the president) and are not accountable to the same people, even though there is overlap in the territories they oversee.

Back to shelter: In Grande Synthe (which is a suburb of Dunkirk) there are still buses to this day, taking people to accommodation centres. In an effort to work more closely with the authorities, the Women’s Centre has been communicating the numbers and compositions of families living in the informal camps, who wish to be sheltered. Last week, there were three families wishing to be sheltered in accommodation centres, including one who wanted to ask for asylum in France.

The sous-préfecture of Dunkirk said they wouldn’t have enough space for the three families before Wednesday, but would arrange a bus for the Wednesday morning, 31st of October. In the meantime, they asked us to find a place for those families to be sheltered until then. On the Wednesday morning, we went to pick up the three families, in order to take them to the bus. We received a phone call in the morning to say the bus would leave at 2pm from the entrance of the camp. This was very timely because that very morning, a dozen families had left an accommodation centre near Valenciennes (which is on the map above, South-East of Lille), as they had reached the end of the month during which they had been allowed to stay.

So the Women’s Centre volunteers were, at the entrance of the camp, with about 15 families, who all were waiting for the bus, to be taken to another accommodation centre. This is when they received a phone call again from the sous-préfecture of Dunkirk: They hadn’t been able to find any spaces in accommodation centres and were cancelling the buses. No buses, no shelter. The 15 families were to sleep outside that night. The youngest child was 9 months old, and the oldest woman was 70. This included many children, some toddlers, and a young girl with a disability who couldn’t walk.

What were we to do? How to explain to all these parents that themselves and their children would have to sleep outside tonight, in a natural reserve with no access to water, no sanitation, just trees and a very cold ground.

This is when we usually run around, start looking for tents, sleeping bags, blankets, loads the vans, do a massive distribution, give out extra coats, extra pairs of socks. But should we? The next day being November 1st, public holiday in France, there wouldn’t be any buses. Then we would have the Friday to hope for spaces, but if there are none, we’d be in the weekend. That’s at least five days of sleeping rough. In just one phone call.

This is where my privilege comes in: the privilege of saying no. Of deciding that, if the families wanted to, we would accompany them to the sous-préfecture to ask for explanations. Why were there no buses? What were they meant to do with their children? What if it rains? All those questions that are usually directed at us, grassroots volunteers, even though we don’t hold the answers or the responsibility. Today, we were going to address them to the French authorities directly.

By then, it was midday. The families accepted.

This is the first part out of three, of a long piece. The second part will be published on November the 11th.

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