Calais mayor bans distribution of food to migrants

Natacha Bouchart says handing out of meals poses security threat, as city tries to stop establishment of new refugee camp

The mayor of Calais has banned the distribution of food to migrants as part of a campaign to prevent the establishment of a new refugee camp as hundreds of people return to the port three months after the original one was demolished.

Natacha Bouchart, from the centre-right Les Républicains party, said she would implement policies “to prevent the distribution of meals to migrants”, and legal documents setting out the restrictions were put up in the vicinity of the camp on Thursday. Officials have already obstructed attempts by local charities to open showers for teenage migrants in the town.

Food distribution volunteers said they had been forced to do so in secret because of a heightened police presence. Refugee charities said they would ignore the ban but were taking legal advice.

A kitchen at a refugee community centre in Calais.
A kitchen at a refugee community centre in Calais. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi/The Guardian

The mayoral decree, dated 2 March, said the “regular, persistent and large presence of individuals distributing meals to migrants” in the area around the site of the former camp posed a threat to the peace and security of the area. It banned any “repeated, prolonged gatherings” in the area, in effect making food distribution an offence.

Sarah Arrom, who has been helping to distribute food with the charity Utopia56 for the last four months, said police had fired teargas to prevent volunteers from giving breakfast to about 30 teenagers in a field near the motorway outside the city on Thursday.

“They wanted to stop the distribution and they wanted to stop people from sleeping in the area,” she said. “There has never been teargas before when we’ve been trying to hand out food.”

Twice this week teenage refugees had been detained by police after visiting the Secours Catholique centre, which offers showers for refugees in the city, she said. “Conditions are becoming more and more problematic for the migrants. They don’t sleep, they can’t take a shower, they are more and more tired. We are really worried about their future.”

The Secours Catholique centre in Calais.
The Secours Catholique centre in Calais. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi/The Guardian

Arrom said the number of refugees was increasing, but donations had dwindled and the charity no longer had sleeping bags or emergency foil blankets to hand out. “We have less and less to give them; donations are almost non-existent.”

Until Thursday, Utopia56 was distributing 250 hot meals a night, a sharp increase on last month, with 80% of recipients aged from 13 to 22, and most of them from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia, she said. The charity would continue to distribute food despite the ban, “for the simple reason that people are hungry”.

Christian Salomé, the president of the Auberge des Migrants charity, said a ban would be catastrophic for refugee children. “Adults will always find a way to buy food in the shops, but for minors it will be a real problem – they have no money at all.”

He said no one had precise figures for the number of refugees around Calais. “People are arriving all the time and not many are getting through [to the UK].”

Renke Meuwese, who works with Refugee Community Kitchen and Help Refugees, said the kitchens were making about 400 meals a day, up from about 50 last month.

He said police seemed to be particularly concerned about reducing the visibility of refugees. “They are trying to make the refugees invisible, so they make it harder to distribute in town than the countryside. We can’t distribute at day so we have to do it at night. They are trying to push them out of sight.”

Bruno Le Roux (2nd R) visits the former refugee camp of “La Lande” with Bouchart to see the site’s remediation project.
Bruno Le Roux (second right) visits the former refugee camp of “La Lande” with Bouchart to see the site’s remediation project. Photograph: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

France’s interior minister, Bruno Le Roux, said during a visit to Calais on Wednesday that the opening of any new migrant reception centre would attract more people to the city, but added: “We will not prevent the distribution of meals.”

However, the mayor said she disagreed, “even if it is difficult to say so, on a human level”, and promised to implement measures to prevent food distribution, according to the local paper, La Voix du Nord. Her office did not respond to a request for comment.


Amelia Gentleman

The GuardianTramp

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