The British founder of a charity that works with children in the Jungle refugee camp in Calais has been arrested on suspicion of embezzlement after she transferred at least £18,000 in charity funds to her personal bank account.
Mary Jones, a teacher who set up the Jungle Books association in December, has denied misappropriating €20,000 (£18,000), saying she had simply been paying herself back for money she had spent on the charity.
She said she had not realised this was illegal under French charity law.
Jones was arrested on Tuesday and kept in a cell overnight before being released without charge.
She told Third Sector: "I was spending money from my own personal account when we started the charity, because other charities had promised they were going to give us money – but it didn’t arrive for two or, in some cases, even six months.
"When you have 200 hungry children in front of you, you can’t say ‘sorry, we haven’t got any money in the bank’, so I had been spending money and reimbursing myself.
"It is a misunderstanding of French law. I didn’t realise it is illegal to have money moving between the bank accounts of a charity and its director and only large charities can give reimbursements."
She said these reimbursements accounted for about €13,000 of the money. On other occasions, she said, she had helped refugees who were unable to receive money transfers from family in other countries by organising for the money to be sent to the charity then given to the intended recipient.
She said she had receipts for all of the transactions and rejected claims in today’s Daily Telegraph newspaper that the money amounted to between €50,000 and €60,000.
Jungle Books, which is not registered as a charity in the UK, provides a library and language classes for refugees in the Calais refugee camp. It also runs Kids Cafe, where about 200 unaccompanied children receive three free meals a day.
The Telegraph reported that Pascal Marconville, the prosecutor of Boulogne-sur-Mer in north-west France, had said at least one other charity worker had filed a legal complaint and "between €50,000 and €60,000 was unaccounted for in the charity accounts".
Marconville said: "About €20,000 ended up in Ms Jones’ bank account while an Afghan migrant thought to be close to Ms Jones has vanished – we believe to another European country, not Britain."
Jones told Third Sector the migrant in question had helped her run the charity and had gone to Italy, where he had refugee status, but had been in contact with police who were aware of his intention to return to France.
Jones faces a maximum prison term of three years and a fine of €375,000 if the case goes to court, but could simply be given a warning, depending on the outcome of the inquiry, according to the Telegraph.
She said the timing of her arrest, shortly before the demolition of the camp was due to begin on 24 October, was "interesting".
Kids Cafe hit the headlines over the summer as a campaign to prevent it being demolished as part of a crackdown on shops and cafes in the camp won backing from several British authors, broadcasters and public figures.