Friday, June 02, 2017

A simple story of a food queue

A heavily armed CRS officer brought his baton down on my hand as he prevented me from carrying a box of food to a group of refugees, unnecessary aggression reinforcing a total prohibition on helping people in desperate need. 

This is calais in 2017 where a group of a hundred or so refugees had gathered on the wasteland near what is being called the new jungle (though see my previous post) in expectation of getting food and water. The van from the warehouse had duly tuned up, the smell of hot food wafting from the tailgate. We had arrived to rendezvous with some young Eritreans in need of a shower and a change of clothes.

But between us and our friends was a row of CRS vans and heavily armed officers toting pepper spray, CS gas,  rubber bullets and other weaponry. There were probably more paramilitary police than volunteers and they were there to ensure that no one got fed today.

An awkward stand-off ensued. As we waited municipal police turned up on motor cycles and proceeded to issue fixed penalty notices on the vans from the warehouse. They were fined €130 for various violations. We could not quite work out what rules had been infringed. Recently one van was fined for being a few kilos over-weight. These seemed to be 'illegally' parked, though how you can do that in an industrial estate, where vehicles are left at rakish angles to the kerb all over the place, beats me.

Finally Vincent decides that this has gone on long enough and with a few of us in tow, he grabs baskets containing takeaway boxes filled with food and leads us towards the line of CRS officers. We intend to feed some people. It's why we'd come. As soon as we reached the line we are stopped, pushed back. A few volunteers take individual meal packs and walk towards the refugees. They too are stopped. One has the lunch box knocked out of her hand and its contents land on an officer. She is led away by a group of police for 'assaulting' one of their own but quickly released. Another volunteer has his mobile phone taken off him by a burly policeman who doesn't like being filmed. Amid howls of indignation from onlookers and some remonstrating from his colleagues he tosses it over his head in the direction of a gaggle of volunteers, one of whom catches it and returns it to its owner. This display of casual brutality is daily life for those we've come to feed.

It is clear that the CRS line is not going to break; indeed it is being reinforced as all this is going on. More vans are arriving and joining the barrier, more heavily armed officers are disgorged and join the thickening blue line. Behind them we notice a van full of border force officers arrives. They start rounding up the refugees, pepper spraying the rocks they are seated on, bundling some into their van and chasing others off. About a dozen are taken away.

It is clear that we can do no more. The few refugees left soon melt away into the woods, making themselves scarce. Hurried phone calls and gesturing from one of the volunteers indicates they will try to meet them and at least give them water on this hot afternoon.

We head for our vehicles that are the other side of the police line. Vincent asks if we can go through to be told firmly 'no'. He asks the young officer why, expecting to be told something about orders or operational safety. But the young man fixes his gaze and tells him 'because it annoys you.' Vincent marvels at his honesty as we walk around the block chuckling in the early summer sunshine to approach our cars from the other end. 

It seems that the Prefect of Calais has decided that, though the court in Lille declared it illegal to prevent the feeding of refugees, he can determine how many times a day they will eat. And he has decided that once a day is sufficient. So distribution, under the watchful gaze of the police, will be allowed between six and eight this evening. We wonder if the prefect is on this one meal a day diet. By the look of a good number of his officers, they are not.

For the refugees who have fled war or the threat of persecution in their own countries, travelled often dangerous routes for many months, this is yet one more indignity visited on them by the home of human rights. It makes you proud to be European! 

We head home to guiltily partake of lunch and post our experiences on Facebook and twitter.