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France a beacon of human rights? Calais migrants tell different story

"France, the country of human rights? Only if you're French!" snorts Jacob Garji, one of hundreds of migrants living rough in Calais who are hunted nightly by police.

France a beacon of human rights? Calais migrants tell different story
AFP

Fifteen months after a squalid camp housing thousands of people aiming to sneak into Britain was bulldozed, the French Channel port is still synonymous with broken dreams.

On Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron swept into town, vowing to stop Calais from serving as an antechamber for migrants desperate to reach Britain.

But the brutal tactics used by French police to prevent the re-emergence of another “Jungle”, as the demolished camp was nicknamed, risk tarnishing the image of a country that sees itself as a beacon of human rights.

Several migrants told AFP they had repeatedly been woken in the woods around Calais by police who sprayed them with “gas”  — NGOs have reported the use of pepper spray — and seized their belongings.

On his visit to Calais Macron ordered police to stop taking away o destroying migrants' belongings.

“They gas the tent while you're sleeping or gas you in your face. The tent, they take it, the sleeping bag, they take it. They even take the medicine given to us in the hospital,” said Dawit, a 21-year-old Ethiopian migrant, as he queued in the cold for tea and bread distributed by a local charity.

Police have in the past denied using pepper spray against migrants and said they seize belongings abandoned by those who flee for fear of being detained.

Using Dawit as an interpreter, several Ethiopians also described being detained by police and dumped outside Calais, about two hours on foot from
their camp — part of what NGOs describe as a strategy to disperse migrants.

Home for the Ethiopians, whose clothes are splattered with mud, is currently a copse next to an industrial estate towered over by giant
electricity pylons.

Jacob Garji, 21, and his brother David, 22, have also set up camp there on the final leg of their family's journey from Iran through Europe.

The brothers, from a Jewish family of Afghan origin that fled anti-Semitism and discrimination against Afghans, have tried nightly over the past three
weeks to stow away on trucks crossing to Britain — to no avail.

But the conditions endured by migrants on the streets of France have only hardened their resolve.

In Paris, the two men were shocked to meet asylum-seekers sleeping under bridges for months while waiting for their claims to be processed.

In Calais, they have frequently been detained and also had their tent repeatedly torn down by police.

“I am ready to spend one or two years to get to Britain. It is my future” said Jacob, who speaks fluent French and English but has no desire to linger
in a country that “is only good for French people”.





'Exhaustion' strategy

NGOs have accused Macron, who campaigned for president last year as a champion of open borders, of betraying France's long tradition of offering
sanctuary by drawing a strict line between those fleeing war or persecution and so-called “economic” migrants.

Three charities on Tuesday refused an invitation to meet with him to discuss a new immigration and asylum plan.

Brice Benazzouz, regional coordinator of the Medecins du Monde medical charity, accused the police in Calais of trying to drive out migrants by
“exhaustion”.

Francois Guennoc, vice president of the Auberge des Migrants charity, said he did not want to be “a mere alibi for a strategy that is already well
established.”

Both charities called for a review of a 2003 agreement that effectively pushed Britain's border across the Channel into France, trapping migrants
there.

Macron has vowed to press Britain at a summit meeting Thursday to shoulder more of the migrant burden, while maintaining a tough line on “illegal
occupation of public space”.

It's a line that has gone over well in Calais.

“They should be sent back home to their country,” Fabienne Bouin, a 53-year-old housekeeper, told AFP, accusing the migrants of being “aggressive”.

Ludovic Deconinck, the amiable manager of a busy cafe in the town centre, said that he was not personally bothered by the migrants' presence but worried the situation had “affected the Calais brand”.

“I feel sorry for them but there's not much we can do for them,” he said.

POLICE

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.

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