Syrian refugees at Calais demand asylum in UK

French officials on Friday offered temporary visas to a group of Syrian refugees, some of them on hunger strike, who have been camped out on a walkway at the ferry terminal in Calais for days. They have been demanding to join their families in the UK.

Syrian refugees at Calais demand asylum in UK
Syrian refugees camp out on a footbridge at the ferry terminal in Calais. Their signs read "Thank you François Hollande," and "We want to talk with David Cameron." Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

Denis Robin, head of the regional authority for Pas-de-Calais, on Friday offered temporary legal status in France to 60 or so Syrian refugees, who have been camping on a footbridge at the ferry terminal of Calais since Wednesday.

The group are demanding passage on a ferry to the UK, in order to join family members there, and around 20 of them have been on hunger strike in protest at their plight.

The Syrians have placed signs on the footbridge saying "We want to talk with David Cameron" and "Take us to the UK," as well as "Thank you François Hollande and people of France."

Earlier in the day, French CRS riot police had to call a halt their 8am attempt to forcibly evacuate the refugees from the footbridge when two of them sat atop a neighbouring building and threatened to throw themselves off it, according to TF1.

“Today, the Syrians present here have put themselves in a deadlock which is not going to move their situation forward,” Robin said

“What we can do is give them a status on French soil, so that in the immediate term they won’t have any further problems in France,” he added.

Robin explained that this legal status would allow them, if necessary, to apply for asylum in France, adding that they would have a “95-percent chance of success.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has pledged to fast-track the applications of Syrians seeking asylum.

‘In France, even animals are treated better than us’

However, the protesting refugees, most of whom arrived a month ago in Calais,have voiced disappointment at the way they were treated in France.

"We thought that France was the country where human rights are respected," said Tarik, a 19-year old from the southern Syrian city of Deraa near the border with Jordan.

"But we live outside like dogs, hunted down by the police, we see we are not welcome, how can we seek asylum here?" he said.

The former engineering student said he was convinced he would find "more humanity" in Britain and eventually bring over his mother and younger brothers currently living in Egypt.

Ali, a 38-year-old, said although French President François Hollande had taken a strong stand against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, the French were not welcoming at all.

"Why does the president say one thing and the police another?" Ali said, adding that he had spent $13,000 (€9,500) to come to a country where the "president said 'we must help Syrians'".

"Here even animals are better treated than us," he said.

The UN refugee agency has said 17 countries, including France, have agreed to receive quotas of refugees fleeing the bloody conflict in Syria.

France has had only 850 registered demands for asylum from Syrians since the start of this year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said late last month.

For its part, Germany has offered to take in 5,000 Syrian refugees.

Austria has offered to accept 500. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland have pledged to grant asylum to 1,650 Syrians in total.

Last year, some 24,000 Syrians claimed asylum in Europe. Between January and July this year, another 20,776 claimed asylum, according to UNHCR data.

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French police cause misery for migrants in Calais

French police are inflicting misery on migrants in the northern port of Calais, routinely tearing down their tents and forcing them to wander the streets as part of a deterrence policy, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report published on Thursday.

French police cause misery for migrants in Calais
A migrant camp is evacuated by police forces in Calais in February 2019. Photo: Philippe HUGUEN / AFP.

The 75-page report documents methods used by authorities to prevent the emergence of another major migrant settlement in Calais, five years after the demolition of the sprawling “Jungle” camp which housed up to 10,000 people at its peak.

Calais has for years been a rallying point for migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa trying to sneak across the English Channel to Britain.

Faced with growing public anti-migrant sentiment, President Emmanuel Macron’s government has waged a campaign to prevent new camps emerging.

Police tactics include systematically tearing down migrants’ tents in the woods, on wasteland or under bridges, regularly confiscating their belongings and harassing NGOs trying to provide them with aid, according to New York-based HRW.

“The authorities carry out these abusive practices with the primary purposes of forcing people to move elsewhere, without resolving their
migration status or lack of housing, or of deterring new arrivals,” it said in the report entitled “Enforced Misery: The Degrading Treatment of Migrant Children and Adults in Northern France”.

‘Harass and abuse’

NGOs estimate the number of migrants currently living around Calais at between 1,500 and 2,000, including numerous families. Local authorities estimate that only 500 remain in the area.

Last week, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin ordered the eviction of a camp housing 400 migrants near a hospital in Calais, which was presented as a danger to the hospital’s patients and staff.

On that occasion the migrants were taken to temporary shelters but often they are left to wander the streets.

“When the police arrive, we have five minutes to get out of the tent before they destroy everything,” a Kurdish woman from Iraq told HRW.

The interior ministry did not respond to AFP’s request for comment on the report.

The government argues that the camps are havens for people smugglers, who command extortionate fees to help migrants cross to Britain, either in a small boat crossing the Channel in the dead of night or stowed away on a truck crossing by ferry or through the Channel Tunnel.

NGOs argue that the tactics do nothing more than make migrants already difficult lives even more miserable.

The report quoted the Calais-based Human Rights Observers group as saying that in some cases cleaning crews cut migrants’ tents while people are still inside, in order to force them out.

“If the aim is to discourage migrants from gathering in northern France, these policies are a manifest failure and result in serious harm,” Benedicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch, said.

French authorities “need a new approach to help people, not repeatedly harass and abuse them,” she added.

A total of 15,400 people attempted to cross the Channel in the first eight months of this year, a increase of 50 percent over the figure for the whole of 2020, according to French coast guard statistics.

“Exiles aren’t travelling to northern France because they’ve heard they can camp in the woods or stay under a bridge…They come because that’s where the border is,” Charlotte Kwantes, national coordinator of the Utopia 56 charity was quoted in the report as saying.