Why does La Liniere need so much aid?
One of the things which has always puzzled us at Dunkirk is why there was such an open ended need for donations and Aid. When the camp opened, it did so with a fanfare and an announcement that it was France’s first official refugee camp. If it was truly an ‘official’ camp then why was there such a constant and open ended need for donations in order to keep it running ?
The Grande Synthe, Dunkirk camp owed its existence almost entirely to the mayor, Damien Careme. He was absolutely appalled at the conditions in the predecessor camp at Basroch. He worked with MSF and secured several million Euros to build and open the new camp of La Liniere, in March 2016. He then secured a commitment from the national French government to fund the running costs of the La Liniere camp, which were estimated at a further 4 million Euros per year.
If the French government gave a commitment to fund the running costs of the camp, why then has there been such a constant need of fundraising in the UK in order to support the camp and its residents ?
Back in 2015, it was urgently necessary for members of the public to volunteer and to step in to provide emergency support, whilst the state geared itself up to exercise its legal responsibilities. We ourselves stepped in during the Autumn of 2015 and Edlumino provided Educational support to the children in the camp.
But we also recognised that the French authorities were perfectly willing to step in and deal with the day to day issues of the refugees at Dunkirk themselves. We therefore began conversations with the authorities about transferring educational responsibilities to the state. We visited local French schools with the refugee children and ensured that the local French teachers were comfortable and confident in picking up educational matters with the children. We then withdrew from the camp in August 2016.
We could have stayed in the camp longer, as families said that they would have liked to continue sending their children to us rather than going to the French schools. But it would have been morally wrong for us to do that. If we had have stayed providing a service funded through donations, which the French government was perfectly happy to provide and fund through French taxation, then that would have been a misuse of the generosity of our donors.
We have watched with surprise as there has been constant fundraising to buy staples like food for the Dunkirk refugee families. We just don’t understand why this is necessary. Do we really think that in a state funded refugee camp, in one of the world’s wealthiest G7, economically developed countries, that people are going to be left to die of hunger?
One of the things which we remember visitors to the Dunkirk camp constantly commenting on last year, was the army of AFEJI staff in the camp visible in their red tabards. They would wander round the camp in groups of 4 or more. If you went to a toilet block there would be a red tabard or 4 standing there. It was apparent to everyone that the number of staff in tabards was vastly excessive to the need.
Why were there so many staff? Well, according to one of the organisers who we spoke to, there was a state funded budget to be spent and with so many volunteers doing their own fundraising and providing donated materials to the camp, the only way to ‘use up’ the state funding was to spend more money on staff.
We never could get to the bottom of whether that claim was true or not. We constantly heard claims and counter claims about the necessity, or the needlessness, of fundraising and donations. Even though we ourselves worked in the camp and witnessed a lot of what was going on, we found it very difficult to unpick the rival claims and get a true and honest sense of what the truth of the matter really was.
As well as disputed claims about the necessity of Aid, we heard Aid workers and authorities in France criticising each other’s activities. We heard Aid workers blaming the Authorities for being uncaring and heartless, saying that they just don’t care about refugees who they are leaving without food, clothing and shelter.
But we also heard the local authorities saying that they have the money for food, clothing and shelter which they are very happy to spend on the refugees, they just didn’t want to spend it in the Calais and Dunkirk area, as they felt that the concentration of so many refugees in that area was a major factor fuelling the crime epidemic of smugglers and traffickers who were themselves concentrated in the area and preying on the refugees. According to the authorities, the best way of protecting the refugees was to disperse them from the Calais and Dunkirk area and it was the activities of the Aid groups, in keeping so many refugees in the area, that was putting so many refugees at risk of kidnapping and mistreatment by the crime gangs.
According to the Aid workers, the authorities were being heartless in not supporting the refugees properly when they were in the Calais and Dunkirk area. Anyone who witnessed the disgraceful conditions at Basroch camp in the Autumn of 2015 has got to wonder why it took so long for the authorities to put in place better conditions; and why a purpose built official camp was constructed in the same area, if the French government policy really was about trying to get refugees away from the criminals in that area.
We listened to vastly different perspectives on this issue and came to appreciate that the matter was not straight forward.
We also heard criticisms from the Authorities about Aid workers. There were concerns, for example, about Aid Workers in France and the sexual exploitation of refugees. Undoubtedly there were some individuals whose conduct was not appropriate, but we also saw many generous, thoughtful Aid workers who did everything that they could to protect the person and dignity of the refugees. It seems to us unfair to tarnish the reputations of so many generous volunteers with the actions of a small minority.
Another matter which we heard officials constantly muttering about was financial skulduggery. The issues were so complicated that it was almost impossible to get proper clarity about it. On the one hand officials said that it was poor practice for Aid workers to be raising money on the internet and putting it into their own personal bank accounts. There may well have been a deficit of transparency in such an arrangement but it wasn’t necessary breaking any laws.
Some Aid groups marketed themselves as ‘charities,’ and as charities they were obliged to use the money which they raised only in accordance with their charity objectives. We have seen groups doing this and being careful to be scrupulously honest in their activities, as they are subject to financial audit, oversight by trustees and intervention by the charity commission if there are concerns.
However, it was clear that other groups and individuals had a variety of different legal statuses. Some Aid groups were ‘businesses’ with ‘directors’. Other fundraising individuals and groups were private enterprises. If they made no pretence to being a charity and made no claims about what proportion of the money which they raised actually went directly to refugees, then there wasn’t necessarily any lawbreaking if the individuals and groups paid themselves money in order to maintain themselves whilst raising funding for those in the camps. This means that it wasn’t fair for officials to imply generalised wrongdoing amongst the Aid groups and individuals.
Ultimately we work in refugee camps but we cannot even begin to disentangle the claims and counter claims which are made about the appropriateness of fundraising and the use of donations in the camps. We have come to wonder if maybe the truth rests somewhere between the poles of debate and so it is important to be aware of both side’s perspectives before reaching a conclusion on what is reported and claimed about the camps.
However, it does seem to us that some of the most thoughtful Aid work is carried out by organisations which meet an emergency need, but then do everything that they can to bring an end to the need for Aid and extract themselves from the situation. We watched French charities like Secours Catholique providing humanitarian assistance, but also going straight to court to force the local administration to fulfil its legal duties and provide the assistance itself - perhaps the most helpful acts of all.