French police and local authorities have been accused of employing heavy-handed tactics as they raided makeshift kitchens in Calais' Jungle migrant camp earlier this week.
French authorities have been carrying out their strongest crackdown on migrants for five years, by raiding and closing down small shops, community kitchens, cafés and hair salons run by asylum seekers in the so-called Calais Jungle migrant camp near the port of Calais access point to the Channel Tunnel.
While organisations working in the camp slammed the operation, IBTimes UK can reveal the authorities also raided and shut down the Kids Cafe, a charity-run restaurant that provides free warm food for around 200 children – over 90% of them unaccompanied – twice a day at lunch and dinner. Until the raid, the place tended to one six year-old and three eight year-olds, among others.
The free restaurant, which was set up by the Jungle Books association and run by Sikander, an Afghan refugee and the association's treasurer, is entirely based on donations and makes no profit.
Mary Jones, a British teacher who set up Jungle Books last year and is responsible for the restaurant told IBTimes UK how officials "came in, put the food into bin bags and took absolutely everything". "They took all the cooking utensils, all our paperwork and messed up the place as well."
The reasons given by the authorities for closing the establishments were health and safety issues – that the restaurants are not hygienic enough to provide food – but they made no differentiation between that and community kitchens run by volunteers who function in the same conditions.
According to the authorities, the food served at the Kids Cafe was "not fit for consumption" – claims Jones rejected. On the third day of action, Jones said she spoke to the chief of police who told her he had been informed that the Kids Cafe was selling food – allegations Jones also denied.
"90% of the food they took, which is donated either directly to us or they go to the Auberge (des Migrants, NGO), were things like canned tomatoes, canned beans, carrots and onions, and chocolate biscuits for the kids. Kids can come in all day so we have tea and biscuits available, as well as two meals a day."
While Jones acknowledged the restaurant does provide children with cooked meat and hot meals, she explained she insisted on telling the authorities "that absolutely nothing can go off, because we get delivered every day, and everything goes within the day". "Try feeding a couple of teenagers - by the end of the evening the whole lot has gone."
The police arrested the restaurant owners, including Sikander, who was later released. Describing how the children had gathered at the restaurant on 20 July, Jones said the police came again and arrested another volunteer, who was taken to a deportation centre where he awaits to be appear before judges in court.
"He has Italian papers therefore he is legal in Europe, and he should be allowed to volunteer, but he is probably going to be deported back to Italy just for helping out feeding kids," Jones said.
Contacted by IBTimes UK, the police commissariat of Calais confirmed the restaurant was closed following the raid but would not specify why.
'Traumatised' children have lost their 'new home'
Jones feared some young children may have been traumatised by the police raids, because, as she explained "it is not just a restaurant, it is a home for them". "They are like a little family together – they all know each other".
The former teacher described how, on the second day, the police came back, even though the volunteers were not serving food and the children were spending their free time at the premises. "The police came in and forcibly pushed the kids out of the restaurant. It's very traumatic for them when they find a place where they feel happy and safe."
Having become like a home, the restaurant was also a place where the children would keep out of trouble, and where they'd receive an informal education.
"The reason we do the food is because the food that is served at the official camp is not food these kids were used to at home, and we had made an effort to make sure we served food the kids actually eat. By preparing this food, we'd attract all the kids in our space, and we would give them asylum advice, we work with the legal centre to help with family reunification, give them lessons – they have English and French every day."
She added: "They really consider this place like home, they help clear up. They help prepare the food, chopping the vegetables, collecting the water, sweeping up the place, tidying up, washing the tables and the dishes... They are better than my kids. They look at Sikander as they Uncle in the camp – he's got them a bit under control. Before they were a bit wild – imagine them being away from their families, some of them for over a year."
Describing a system that was working well, Jones said she feels it is now "broken" – children have returned to the camp's official mass meals places, where she says they have to queue a long time to receive any food.
During a meeting between the NGOs working in the camp and a representative of the Prefecture on 21 July, it was agreed that community kitchens were allowed to continue operating on condition they tried to respect the health and safety guidelines as much as possible, and that the Prefecture had the right to carry out checks at any given time.
'Uncertain times' in the Jungle
"In these uncertain times, it's difficult to know whether they will be able to feed the kids again," Annie, who volunteers for Help Refugees, an organisation that contributes food to the restaurant, told IBTimes UK.
Referring to the same meeting on 21 July, Annie, who carries out monthly population census in the camp, said a total of 7,000 meals were provided per day by the other organisations.
"There are now 7,300 people in the camp (according to the latest monthly census). So we can only assume that the authorities are OK with the people only having one meal a day provided by the NGOs?"
Annie added: "The way residents feel is that this is just another way to exhaust them, and that the authorities use methods of psychological exhaustion in order to put pressure on the people here and others willing to come."
Jones, meanwhile, said she has asked to be interviewed by police, to help give a clear account of the restaurants activities and ensure it will not be repeatedly re-opened and closed down in the future.
"That they have taken everything is absolutely unacceptable. It was the only way they were trying to justify the fact that they committed a bit of a mistake in raiding the cafe – we were the third restaurant there as they went down in their big sweep – so now they are trying to backtrack a bit," Jones added.
Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart, on 11 July, tweeted that the dismantling of the northern zone would be announced "very soon" – and the Prefecture said there would be no "major action" –dismantling of the north zone until September.