Calais’s migrants continue to face an interminable violation of their human rights

Calais's migrants continue to face an interminable violation of their human rights

In this December 2020 photo, young Afghan migrants, including minors, survive in a small makeshift camp in Calais while waiting to enter the UK.

(Claire Debuyser)

It’s a December morning and a convoy of security forces stop at the entrance to an empty lot adjacent to the railway in Calais, northern France, which serves as a refuge for around 20 Afghan migrants including some minors. Police officers and gendarmes enter the thickets where the migrants are camped out and force them to leave. The tents and sleeping bags that they don’t have time to take with them are confiscated by cleaning service agents. It’s 10am and this is the fourth camp eviction of the morning.

A security perimeter keeps journalists and aid workers at a distance. Two volunteers from the collective Human Rights Observers (HRO) try to film the scene with their mobile phones. “We are systematically blocked,” says Pénélope Gambi. “We can’t see what happens during the operation and we can’t even talk to the people being expelled anymore. We usually try to talk to them to find out which of their things have been taken and what they need.”

Since 2017, members of HRO have tried to be present for the evictions and document police actions. Their working method is inspired by ‘cop watching,’ which has its origins in the United Sates. “The prefecture doesn’t want us there. But we wouldn’t be coming if migrants’ basic rights weren’t being violated during these evictions,” says HRO coordinator Chloé Smidt-Nielsen.

The police are regularly accused of violence and the destruction of property during such operations. “Sometimes they slash tents while there are still people inside,” she continues.

Two Afghan teenagers returning from the city centre approach the camp surrounded by gendarmes who prevent them from retrieving their belongings. “They destroyed our tent and took away our sleeping bags and all of our clothing. We have nothing left,” says Mustafa, 17, as he watches law enforcement vehicles and cleaning trucks leave the area. “These are minors, they should be taken care of. But no, they are left like this and the police or cleaning team take away their belongings,” says Gambi.

Some of the possessions confiscated during the evictions are immediately sent to a waste disposal centre. The rest are carelessly placed in a container where the migrants can come and collect them, provided that a member of an association accompanies them. Malek, one of the Afghans evicted earlier today, retrieves a tent and his backpack from a pile of dirty belongings. “It’s very difficult for us,” says the young man in very good English. “We have no place to sleep. We sleep in ‘the Jungle’. The police shouldn’t take our clothes. Every day we have to walk here in the rain to get them. It’s not right.”

Calais, a point of transit for more than 20 years

For more than 20 years, migrants and refugees have flocked to Calais in the hope of reaching the United Kingdom. The first migrant camps began to appear in the winter of 1998, then mostly made up of people from Kosovo. To accommodate them, the Red Cross opened a welcome centre in the nearby town of Sangatte. Over the next three years, 70,000 migrants from all over the world passed through its doors. Under pressure from London, Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s Minister of the Interior, closed the centre in December 2002. The migrants dispersed throughout Calais and its outlying area, sleeping in the streets, and creating squats and the first ‘Jungle’ camp in the woods near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel. In September 2009, French authorities cleared the camp, which then held around 1,000 inhabitants.

But little by little migrants returned to Calais. In 2015, a temporary reception centre was opened away from the city centre in the middle of wind-swept moors. Meals were distributed and migrants began to set up camps around the building: the ‘new Jungle’ was born. It was the first shantytown to be tolerated by the French authorities since the closure of the Sangatte centre. The number of migrants living there rapidly increased to as many as 10,000 people according to various associations. Clashes between law enforcement and migrants, as well as violence between migrants multiplied. The lack of safety and sanitation in ‘the Jungle’ fed its residents’ anger and the camp was ultimately dismantled in October 2016.

But the migrants have not disappeared. This winter, between 500 and 800 – mostly Sudanese, Eritreans, Afghans and Iranians – are thought to currently be living in temporary camps in the port city, from which the police evict them every 48 hours. The town hall and the prefecture intend to fight against what they call ‘fixation points’. “It’s another way of saying that they are trying to discourage people from staying here, near the border,” says François Guennoc, president of the association Auberge des Migrants (Migrant Hostel). “This entails almost daily expulsions, the building of walls and fences wherever migrants have tried to settle, deforestation to prevent people from hiding and constant police pressure.” In September 2020, a prefectural decree created controversy by limiting associations from distributing meals under the pretext of managing the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pas-de-Calais prefecture justifies such actions as a means of “preventing the reconstitution of insalubrious camps that would soon become shantytowns. At some locations, between 10 and 50 tents are dismantled during police actions”. These evictions are based on the principle of flagrante delicto: as long as a camp has existed for fewer than 48 hours, the police can intervene on the orders of the public prosecutor to stop the occupation of the land “with a prior complaint from the owners concerned, public or private,” according to the prefecture.

Occasionally, larger-scale evacuations take place that include ‘sheltering,’ where buses are chartered to take migrants who wish to go to shelters. The associations, however, describe it as ‘forced sheltering’: “People do not necessarily consent to being taken to the four corners of France,” says Marion Dumontet of Cabane Juridique (Legal Shelter).

“They are not given information and a large police force is deployed at the time. Everything is confused because the evictions and the sheltering are happening at the same time. Are people really consenting to getting on a bus under such circumstances?” asks the activist.

According to the prefecture, migrants can always go to the Centre d’Accueil et d’Examen des Situations (the Reception and Situation Review Centre, or CAES), which “provides shelter under dignified conditions and an accelerated review of administrative situations.” While there are two such centres in the department, they are far from the coast. Many prefer to stay in Calais to continue trying to make the crossing to England.

One hour after being evicted from their camp, Malek and a few other Afghans have returned to the same vacant lot. Amidst the rubbish littering the muddy ground, one of them heats sauce and beans over a small wood fire. “We’re not crazy, we wouldn’t come here to live under these conditions if we didn’t have problems in our country,” says the young man.

They were not arrested this morning even though a border police vehicle was among those in the police convoy. “The checks are completely arbitrary. This contributes to the migrants’ fears. Many try not to be present during the evictions because they know they can be arrested,” explains Smidt-Nielsen of HRO. According to François Gemenne, a specialist in migration flows and researcher at Sciences Po Paris, “it is expensive to arrest people, they have to be placed in detention centres, there has to be room...[.] The purpose of evictions is to create the impression that the state is doing something about immigration even though it isn’t really trying to relocate these people. It has no coherent immigrant policy.”

“In the eyes of the state, these are people in transit who are not deserving of investment in hospitality. This is what leads to the camps,” explains Gemenne. For these migrants, Calais is often the final step in a long journey across Europe. “Only a minority of the people here have actually set out with plans to go to the UK,” says Guennoc of Auberge des Migrants. “Most of them are rejected asylum seekers from all over or people who had papers for a certain length of time which were not renewed.” There are also the ‘Dublined,’ so called because they fall under the Dublin Regulation which stipulates that they must apply for asylum in the European country of their arrival. Without any prospects in France, they too hope to make it to the United Kingdom.

England, despite the dangers of the unknown and the post-Brexit era

The British coast is only 35 kilometres from Calais and migrants take all manner of risks to reach it. Those without money to pay a smuggler try to board lorries travelling through the Channel Tunnel. The police sometimes intervene violently to disperse them. A 25-year-old Sudanese man who arrived in Calais two months ago and wishes to remain anonymous received an arm injury in early December: “I tried to cross into England by getting on a truck because there were a lot of traffic jams. But the police arrived and I was arrested. They beat me up, threw tear gas on me and in the end, I was hit on the hands and arm.” The man, whose arm is now in a cast, decided to file a complaint.

Cabane Juridique is helping him in his efforts though his chances of a favourable ruling are slim. “There are almost never any convictions of police,” acknowledges Nora Fellens, a lawyer with the association who handles cases of police violence. “Often it’s their word against yours and the complaints are dismissed without further action.”

Faced with the difficulty of boarding a lorry, the number of migrants attempting to cross the Channel in small boats has increased dramatically over the last two years. The Maritime Prefecture counted more than 9,500 crossings or attempted crossings in makeshift boats in 2020, four times more than in 2019. According to British media reports, more than 8,000 people have managed to reach England in this way. While this represents a high rate of success, these crossings remain extremely dangerous: the English Channel is one of the busiest straits in the world and the currents there are particularly violent. Seven people, including five members of the same family, died when their boat sank on 27 October of last year.

According to Guennoc, the situation in Calais has gotten worse since last summer: “This coincides with the arrival of Gérald Darmanin at the Ministry of the Interior as well as major protests from the British authorities who accuse France of not doing enough to stop people from crossing the Channel.” The explosion in sea crossings has received significant media attention in the United Kingdom. According to Mathieu Tardis, researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI): “France is subject to a lot of pressure from politicians and media on the other side of the Channel.” The Le Touquet Treaty of 2003 effectively moved the UK border to the French coast. France is provided with funding to stop migrants from trying to enter the United Kingdom illegally. On 28 November 2020, the two countries announced a new agreement to increase surveillance of the English Channel: police patrols along French beaches are to double supported by drones and radars. In exchange, the United Kingdom agreed to spend €31.4 million to support France’s efforts.

Since leaving the European Union on 1 January 2021, Britain is now relying on a security approach to limit arrivals to its territory as it can no longer rely on the Dublin Regulation to send migrants back to other European countries.

No other text currently replaces the vacuum left by this law, as asylum and immigration policies were left out of the negotiating mandate of the Brexit agreement. The exit from the Dublin Regulation also means the end of one of the few legal avenues of access to the United Kingdom: family reunification. According to a joint article written by several associations and published in the newspaper Libération: “By not anticipating the impact of the Brexit agreement on migration policies, European leaders have allowed the British government to further close its borders without assuming the consequences.”

The article’s authors fear that the United Kingdom will further tighten its asylum laws. “The British are still part of the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights, so they cannot simply do as they please,” stresses Tardis. “I think one of the challenges for them will be to see how far they want to move away from European standards or not.” The fate of all those stuck in Calais in the hope of reaching the UK is one of the great unknowns of the post-Brexit era.

This article has been translated from French.