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AYS Special: Choose Love? — but not in France

Are You Syrious?

Jan 8 · 9 min read

UK-registered charity Choose Love was started under the name ‘Help Refugees’ by three well-connected campaigners. Coldplay’s Chris Martin and actors Olivia Colman and Phoebe Waller-Bridge are among the celebrity supporters, and millions of pounds of funding is raised in part via their trendy pop-up-shop on central London’s Carnaby Street. The charity funds partner organisations in various countries, but recently announced a huge reduction in funding for groups in Northern France. Helen Tennyson explains how and what happened.

Pop-up Shop on Carnaby Street. Photo Credit: Choose Love on Instagram

Since 1st January 2022, Choose Love has withdrawn funding from almost every organisation it had been supporting on the ground in Calais and Dunkirk. Although the organisations involved had known since the summer, they were unable to act upon the changes until Choose Love made its official announcement in November. On 1st November, Choose Love stated that:

As a result of many contributing factors, including the pandemic, we initiated an internal and external review of our strategy. From January 2022, we will focus all of our support in Northern France on unaccompanied children; ECPAT International and Safe Passage will be our sole partners in the area.

Every charity based in the UK that was previously funded by Choose Love is affected.

The decision to pull out of Northern France came as a huge shock when it was unofficially announced in the summer. Choose Love provided over £1million a year in funding to grassroots organisations who work to provide services that are still very much needed this year. These services include everything from providing basic necessities such as firewood and hot meals, to safeguarding children and bearing witness to the human rights violationsthat take place regularly in Calais and Dunkirk. The situation there is desperate and hostile.

It is not only these services that will be affected by the withdrawal; the reduction in operational capacity will put pressure on the other organisations working there, all of whom are already under strain from the effects that Brexit and Covid have had on volunteer and donation numbers over the past year. A sad reflection of trickle-down economics is that a gap in funding of this magnitude will obviously be felt hardest by the people most in need of the services; and at the moment an estimated 1,000 people are living outdoors along the coast of Northern France.

Why?

Choose Love — Help Refugees. It’s in the name. So why has it withdrawn funding to Calais, of all places? The sharp rise in the numbers of small boat crossings last year is testament to the fact that there are more people passing through the area. Every person who arrives needs something; more boat crossings means more people who will have accessed the services provided by organisations on the ground. The increase in police brutality, evictions and what I would describe as theft on the part of the establishment against vulnerable members of the community has been a steady, increasing trend over the past two years. Evictions are constant, and after every eviction there is a person with no tent, no fuel, and at the moment no access to running water. A combination of Brexit and a two-year global pandemic has left even the most well-funded organisations struggling to meet day-to-day needs.

Displaced people in Northern France are not safer, nor better provided for, and the situation is arguably worse for those living there than a year ago. So why now?

I have been working on and off in northern France for two years with various different organisations, and no-one can definitively provide an answer to the question of why Choose Love has withdrawn funding, though a recent article by Corporate Watch highlights several possibilities. The article corroborates everything I have heard from people working both within organisations supported by Choose Love and those outside of it and details the involvement of ‘Prism the Gift Fund’ (who has full control of Choose Love’s financial transactions) in investigations over serious allegations of misconduct against the charity. There is also a strong sense amongst the community of organisations on the ground that the withdrawal is linked in part to Conservative Government immigration policy, which endeavours to restructure the legality behind ‘assisting unlawful immigration’.

Any link, no matter how tenuous, to government policy or preference that shapes distribution of charitable funds is worrying. Charities should be independent of the influence of government in any form. They should be able to operate, and I think for the most part, are expected to operate, without political interference. There is no statement however, from the government nor Prism, that testifies to this. They have stated that Choose Love’s financial decisions are its own. What we do know is Choose Love has withdrawn support from organisations in need, and continues to do so, without full disclosure as to the reasons why.

One thing we all wonder is why they waited so long between the decision to pull funding and their public announcement. I, along with almost everyone working on the ground in Northern France at the time, knew of the decision in summer. It was common knowledge that it was common knowledge, but also common knowledge that no-one was supposed to know. The charities affected launched the ‘Calais Appeal’ after the announcement on 1st November; an intelligent and united effort to find a way to replace those funds. An appeal of this size and planning takes a long time to coordinate, and yet was ready to launch immediately after the announcement was made public. The organisations knew before, but were explicitly told not to publicise the information for fear of having their funding cut before the deadline of December 31st. This meant they couldn’t seek alternative funding sooner, essentially cutting their preparation time from six months to two. Choose Love is now using the same model in Greece. They are exploiting the relationship of trust that it has fostered with organisations on the ground, and this exploits the relationship between itself and its donors as well.

A major alarm-bell is the way in which Choose Love chose to make its public announcement regarding the withdrawal from Calais. It published a handwritten letter on its social channels, and turned off public comments on the post. The post is sandwiched between advertisements for the pop-up store in Carnaby street, and a post about Walk With Amal — who, paradoxically, made the final parts of her journey through Northern France. The letter is very on-brand for Choose Love. It’s written in sharpie pen, in cute handwriting, and it’s personal — ‘you made it possible’.

The whole letter glosses over the devastating effect that their withdrawal has upon the people living and working there, but no more so than where it states: ‘We are committed to… fundraising for our remaining two partners working to safeguard unaccompanied children in France.’

Project Play and the Refugee Women’s Centre worked together to safeguard children in northern France, and are amongst those with the biggest losses to funding. The women’s centre was 100% funded by Choose Love, and Project Play has lost around £30,000 a year. The letter does not include a satisfactory reason behind the withdrawal, just a vague mention of ‘many contributing factors, including the pandemic’. The letter is just another of the numerous examples that point to how Choose Love is choosing to operate; namely behind the scenes and outside of public scrutiny.

If you live in the UK and you donate to a refugee charity in the UK, you expect your money to go to people on both sides of the Channel. It’s your backyard. It’s your government, your responsibility. Your guilt. And yet the Choose Love online store, which encourages shoppers to ‘buy a real item for a refugee’, is nothing more than a well-endorsed sham. There is nowhere on that website that it states that your money won’t be used in Calais or Greece; that wouldn’t be profitable. And there are profits involved: 2% of Choose Love’s income went to Prism the Gift Fund in 2020, and the offshoot company ‘Prism Administration Ltd’ stands to profit. The second most popular gift on the online store is “Family Reunion”, where ‘your gift pays for casework and legal services to reunite families’ — for an easy £40.

It’s shocking. It commodifies trauma, it exploits human suffering, and it simplifies international politics.

The nature of this kind of ‘giving’ is to make you, the donor, feel like your donation is personal. You need to know your money matters, and that your money is going to something worthwhile, right? It is a privilege to be able to pick and choose the things you feel are worth donating to charity for. I was always taught that once you give a gift, it’s a gift. Choose Love is marketing giving, and are doing so at the expense of the very people they are claiming to help. If you are responsible for creating profit, you are caged by the rich, and Choose Love is proving to be so.

The issue at hand is one of transparency. I believe that Choose Love, under the auspices of Prism the Gift Fund, has not been transparent with anyone (from donors to organisations) throughout any of their recent engagements. Choose Love is a very profitable charity. It looks great, it sells well. The marketing is flawless, and the brand is simple. There are thousands of celebrities wearing the merchandise — I mean who wouldn’t choose love? They took over Carnaby street and decked it out to encourage you to help a refugee this Christmas. They have brought the issue of refugees to the streets of London and the world… Right? I’m not sure.

Their response to Crystallynn Steed’s accusation of rape was a disgusting example of victim blaming and caused irreparable harm both to her and survivors of sexual violence everywhere. The way that they handled the withdrawal from France and the sheer lack of reasoning for their delay in publicly announcing the fact, not to mention for the withdrawal itself, has left everyone stumped as to what happened. Choose Love is proving again and again that it will happily sacrifice integrity for its brand. It is no longer operating in the interests of those it claims to be, from their own employees, to the organisations it funds, to refugees themselves.

So what can be done? Stand in solidarity with those who have suffered for the sake of Choose Love’s image. Donate to Calais Appeal, and spread the word. Many people donate to Choose Love under the impression that their money will go towards helping displaced people in Northern France and this is not the case. Call on Choose Love for transparency, people need to be clear on how their money is being used and why. And who knows, maybe Choose Love will change if their donations drop? After all, if there’s one thing big business answers to, it’s money.

Helen Tennyson has helped out with various projects in France and Serbia as well as Montenegro and also co-founded solidarity group OUI.

Are You Syrious? has previously received funding from Choose Love/Help Refugees.

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