Migrants in Calais harassed and hunted as they wait for journey's end
French riot police accused of using brutal tactics to prevent large encampments from springing up once again
With the riot policeman in hot pursuit, his baton drawn, four young African men round the corner past Cafe des Dunes into a well-trimmed residential street and keep running until the officer finally gives up the chase.
When the officer sheaths his baton, the young men sit down on the pavement, a few hundred metres away, keeping a wary eye on their panting pursuer. The teenagers are safe from the reach of the law, for now.
It’s the aftermath of another woodland clearance in Calais, a daily occurrence in the port city where migrants have returned in the hundreds for what they hope are the short final legs of long journeys that will take them to Britain - and a better life.
On this occasion, it’s all over quickly.
But nine of their number have not been so fortunate. Caught by police, they are ordered to sit down in front of a patrol car while officers continue to clear out the small wood, dumping their worldly belongings — blankets, plastic sheets and clothing — on the roadside.
It’s a regular scene in this corner of industrial Calais — and what rights groups claim is a repeated cycle of harassment and abuse.
There are no obvious signs of distress among the detained migrants this time round. But witness accounts gathered from some of the estimated 1,000 migrants living rough in and around Calais and the nearby port of Dunkirk have detailed police use of heavy-handed tactics.
Migrants told The National of cases where police targeted sleeping migrants with incapacitant spray, beat others with batons resulting in broken limbs, and left untethered police dogs in the back of vans to bite detained migrants.
“The police come every day, they have sticks and spray,” said Amir Yassin, 17, from Ethiopia, one of the four youths who successfully fled the policeman. “There were 50 people [migrants] in there and they all ran.”
Even as vans of the riot police continue to circle the area, the four teenagers are slowly joined by other young men and women along the tracks that lead to the woods. Most of them are teenagers, the youngest 14, mainly from Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Asked what he would do now, Mr Yassin shrugged. First, he said, they would head a few hundred metres across a field where charities handed out hot food every lunchtime and evening. After that, he didn’t know.
If it were last year, these migrants would have likely joined thousands of others in The Jungle — a large, informal encampment of plastic-and-plywood shacks and tents a mile away. But the French authorities razed it in October and removed its residents to shelters around the country.
While the Jungle might be gone, the French authorities can do nothing about the city’s frontier location where ferries and a 40-kilometre undersea tunnel provide potential routes into Britain for those fleeing persecution, war or economic deprivation.
Migrants have returned again, albeit in smaller numbers, where they are forced into playing the daily ritual of cat-and-mouse with the French authorities who don’t want them there, and don’t want a new encampment to take the place of the Jungle.
For that reason, regional government has balked at providing any service that gives a sense of permanence or could encourage others to join them. Migrant welfare groups had to go to court to force the state to provide water, toilets and shower facilities for the migrants, some of whom say they have been there for a year sleeping in the woods or living rough on the streets.
Even after the court’s stinging criticism in July of the “inhuman or degrading” treatment of the migrants, authorities delayed providing mobile shower units.
The National reported last month that authorities have blamed a nationwide shortage of mobile shower units on demand from wine growers in the south for their seasonal fruit pickers.
The migrants instead are living in scrubland on industrial estates, in woodland and on a slag heap of building waste. They sleep sporadically, always with a wary eye for the police on early morning operations to flush them out.
If they’re caught they’ll be taken into custody and usually released, sometimes within hours, but maybe not for days.
They then return for another go at stowing away on one of the lorries stopping for fuel at a petrol station, or halting briefly at a roundabout, for another attempt to reach Britain. UK government figures suggest that more than 56,000 attempts were made to get into southern England from French ports and terminals in 2016.
Concern over the tactics used by police to disrupt and stop the illegal migration has prompted rights groups to start compiling evidence, witness accounts and video footage of incidents of alleged brutality.
Human Rights Watch in July accused the riot police, the Compagnies Republicaines de Securite, or CRS, of the routine abuse of migrants, with the authorities turning a blind eye to their activities. The report claimed that the CRS used incapacitant spray to damage migrants' water and food supplies, clothes and sleeping bags which meant they then had to be thrown away.
Human Rights Watch’s France director, Benedicte Jeannerod, said it was reprehensible to use spray on migrant children and adults. “When police destroy or take migrants’ blankets, shoes, or food, they demean their profession as well as harm people whose rights they’ve sworn to uphold,” she said.
At the warehouse depot of Help Refugees and other NGOs on a Calais industrial park, volunteers prepare hot meals, sort donations and sew socks and clothes. They are running low on sleeping bags, shoes and blankets because of the police seizures or contamination.
The police tactics keep the demand for dry sleeping gear at the same level as when there were 10,000 people living in the Jungle, said officials. The centre distributes up to 900 sleeping bags a week, but the need is for about twice that number.
“We get really regular reports from people telling us they are woken up in the middle of the night by police spraying their sleeping bags and blankets, which renders them completely unusable,” said Annie Gavrilescu, the group’s regional manager.
Before the Jungle was destroyed, there were stories of police shooting children in the legs with non-lethal riot control weapons, she said. “Now it’s a much less direct way of inflicting violence with spray, so it’s not so visible, doesn’t leave so many marks and not for so long.
“There are some bad apples, but it’s also a pretty bad barrel.”
The French authorities have denied any wrongdoing by police units.
In response to the Human Rights Watch report, Vincent Berton, the deputy prefect for Calais, said claims by migrants were “slanderous” and denied that spray was used on sleeping migrants. Migrants say the sprays caused blisters, streaming eyes and made it difficult to breathe.
“I have not seen or heard that,” Mr Berton told HRW. “I did not give such orders. For me, this doesn’t exist.”
Rights workers, however, claim to have obtained mobile phone footage that reportedly shows a riot police officer using incapacitant spray against refugees running away from a van during an early morning police operation.
The footage — which this newspaper has not seen — shows the police making two passes, each time using the spray, according to Maddie Harris, of the Humans for Rights Network.
One alleged victim — who said his lip blistered as a result of the incident and has given a statement to rights activists - told The National he was sitting by the side of the road when the police drove past. A policeman “didn’t speak, he just opened the car window and used the spray”, said Yonas Chkol, 34, from Ethiopia.
After being sprayed, someone blew cigarette smoke on his face in an attempt to mitigate the painful effects, he said. “But one young guy didn’t know what to do and washed his face in water and his face became blistered.”
The destruction of the Jungle has meant that the migrant population has been spread across the region in smaller groups. In Dunkirk, an informal camp has sprung up in scrubby woodland close to a reservoir used by wind surfers. It is populated by mainly Afghan men, some with wives and families.
During the day, migrants gather in a clearing close to a main road where French and British volunteers play with the children and teach them rudimentary English and maths.
Aid workers say there are concerns that some of the estimated 200 unaccompanied children in Calais and Dunkirk have been targeted by traffickers. One NGO collated details of dozens of vulnerable youngsters they had encountered and sent them to the government’s child protection agency. It says it has not received any response.
The stories about the police of the adults in Dunkirk are similar to those in Calais.
Hama Jamal, 38, accompanied by his wife and two children, said he pitched his tent some 40 minutes' walk away from the clearing to hide from morning raids. He avoids lighting fires, and takes different routes to his tent to avoid creating tell-tale tracks in the long grass. “If they knew I had a tent, they would take it away,” he said.
The bulk of the population remains in Calais within striking distance of the main roads that lead to the ferry terminals and where tensions between different nationalities resulted in mass brawls involving up to 200 migrants last month, according to the French authorities.
Underneath electricity pylons, a long line of men is queueing for freshly prepared food brought in vans from the kitchens of the NGO warehouse in Calais.
Some of the men have been here for a year. An Afghan who gave his name only as Nasir, 21, said he had tried more than 150 times to cross to Britain, reaching a ferry a dozen times before he was caught.
He has been detained on numerous occasions, and his face has two blisters that he said were caused by incapacitant spray. He said he would be “more happy to die in Afghanistan” than to apply for asylum in France.
Back in the woodland cleared by the police earlier in the day, the migrants are returning. One man is limping and points to his bare feet. He says he has been without shoes for three days.
The nine migrants who were arrested were released from a police station on the other side of the city without charge. They returned to the woodland after walking for three hours, according to members of the group, as they prepare a meal of beans in a metal pot over an open fire within a few metres of the road.
“Maybe tonight, inshallah, we will get to the UK,” said Amir Yassin.
Updated: September 3, 2017 05:07 PM