Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 September 2019

'The French government pushed us out with police hostility’: northern France’s evicted refugees

New report released by Human Rights Observers in Calais shows more than 800 forced evictions in the past 10 months

Cleaning staff confiscate tents and personal belongings during an eviction in Grande-Synthe, 15 January 2019. Courtesy Adrian Abbott
Cleaning staff confiscate tents and personal belongings during an eviction in Grande-Synthe, 15 January 2019. Courtesy Adrian Abbott

Like many refugees living in northern France, Bakur is used to being woken up in the early hours of the morning by police.

Bakur, a Kurdish refugee looking to get to the UK, was evicted and then arrested in November last year, after police woke him up at 8am before taking away his tent and belongings.

“We were asked for our names and they put a bracelet around our hands so they can recognise us, by name and numbers, like we were animals in a farm. Our bus went to Calais. There was, I believe, more than thirty people in two buses, which went to the deportation centre in Calais. From that day we spent 45 days in a deportation centre,” he said.

Speaking to The National, Bakur called the detention “the worst days of my life,” drawing comparisons of his father’s experiences when he was detained in exile in Iran during the war with Iraq for eight years.

“It taught me to be patient despite the injustice,” he said.

When Bakur left the deportation centre he was hosted by a French woman, who he had met before he was taken and arrested by police. He was lucky, however, because if she didn’t offer to host him, he would have been back living on the streets.

The routine eviction of a camp in Calais, with heavy police presence, 9 April 2019. Courtesy Adrian Abbott
The routine eviction of a camp in Calais, with heavy police presence, 9 April 2019. Courtesy Adrian Abbott

Bakur eventually made it to the UK in February where he is applying for refugee status and has been allowed to study. To get to the UK, his family paid an agent to put him in a truck.

Most displaced people in Northern France are not as fortunate as Bakur and end up facing violent evictions on the streets again. Although the "Jungle" camp, which hosted more than 10,000 refugees and migrants, including unaccompanied children, was demolished in 2016, conditions continue to get worse for displaced people in northern France.

Those who have reached the northern tip of the country now live in scattered tents and have no regular access to food, water, sanitation, shelter or legal assistance. Refugees come to Calais with the hope of reaching the UK, but they often have to live in uncomfortable conditions in industrial areas, bushes, under bridges and next to highways around the French port city instead.

A new report from Calais-based Human Rights Observers (HRO) to coincide with World Refugee Day reveals that there were at least 803 forced evictions of displaced people in Calais and Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, between August 1, 2018, and June 1, 2019, creating abject living conditions and forcing people to seek even more dangerous routes to reach the UK.

Displaced minors

These evictions take place on a daily basis in Calais, in which displaced people are forced out of their living sites, subjected to police violence and the destruction of their belongings if they do not comply. The evictions affect all displaced people in Calais, including unaccompanied child minors as young as 10 years old.

James Aldred, Project Manager for Northern France at the Refugee Youth Service, who works with displaced minors in the region, told The National that the high eviction figures are “evidence of the strategy taken by the authorities to facilitate suffering and not facilitate support”.

“It is tragic that adolescents are currently facing almost daily attempts by the police to disrupt, displace and distress them,” he said.

Young children surrounded by gendarme officers in full riot gear, during an eviction in Grande-Synthe, 23 October 2018. Courtesy Adrian Abbott
Young children surrounded by gendarme officers in full riot gear, during an eviction in Grande-Synthe, 23 October 2018. Courtesy Adrian Abbott

Mr Aldred and his colleagues at the Refugee Youth Service have 250 minors they are trying to support in Calais and Dunkirk.

“These boys are not being educated but instead dehumanised by such an approach from the authorities,” he said. “They have a right to safe resettlement, housing, and education. When will the authorities reflect on what they are teaching them about society and about humanity with such an unimaginable number of evictions?”

The legality of the evictions remains unclear. During these operations, police establish a ‘security perimeter’ which displaced people cannot enter to retrieve their belongings, according to the report. Observers and volunteers are also forced out so that they cannot see the eviction underway, hiding abusive practices from view. In March this year, a worried mother approached a police officer, asking if she could go back to her tent to get her child who was asleep in their tent. A volunteer who was present said that the police denied her request before reassuring her that her child would not “end up in the trash”.

Préfet du Pas-De-Calais, the prefecture of Calais that helps govern the police forces in the area, did not comment respond to a request for comment from The National.

However, after evicting migrants from their tents in Calais last winter, a police spokesperson said: "Since the dismantling of the Lande de Calais camp, the objective of the public authorities has been to avoid the formation of new shanty towns in Calais, which would put migrants in inhumane conditions.

"The objective is also to preserve order and public security both the people of Calais and the migrants themselves, particularly with regard to smugglers.

"Operations to remove illegal camps are regularly carried out to remove the makeshift shelters discovered in Calais, in respect of the rights of migrants and police ethics."

Legal action and activism

An appeal was taken to the Supreme Court in Paris in Monday denouncing human rights violations displaced people in Grande-Synthe, led by two displaced people, supported by nine associations in the town. HRO collected evidence, including testimonies, photos and video evidence to support the emergency litigation. The result of the appeal is scheduled to be released within the week.

Jenni Whitaker, Human Rights Observers Coordinator for Northern France, told The National that the organisation is planning to undertake a legal process for those who have been evicted in Calais too.

A family eat dinner at their living site just prior to its eviction in Grande-Synthe, 22 October 2018. Courtesy Adrian Abbott
A family eat dinner at their living site just prior to its eviction in Grande-Synthe, 22 October 2018. Courtesy Adrian Abbott

Despite there being over 800 evictions in the area over the last nine months, there are still over 1,000 displaced people in northern France, of which 255 are unaccompanied minors and 277 are people in family units. Globally, the refugee crisis shows no sign of abating either, with more than 68.5 million people forced from their homes and nearly 25.4 million refugees, more than half of whom are under the age of 18.

The UK has taken some steps forward. The British Home Office has recently introduced a new initiative to combat the refugee crisis, but it still has a long way to go. On Monday, it said at least 5,000 more refugees will be resettled in the UK under a renewed government imitative. The government said that although it had agreed to welcome between 5,000 and 6,000 refugees in 2020-21, the actual number will depend on factors including the amount of suitable accommodation provided by councils.

But clearly, much more work needs to be done. The Dubs amendment, where the UK said it would resettle around 3,000 children but ministers controversially set a limit of 480, is seen by many observers to be a failure, with less than half that number being re-settled.

Elsewhere in Europe, governments are failing to humanely address the refugee crisis. Italian far right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini’s polices for example, have included closing ports to migrant rescue ships, being able to evict people from refugee centres and dismantle integration projects. Oxfam and 49 other major charities on Tuesday accused EU governments of being complicit for the deaths of more than 5,300 people crossing Libya for Italy.

In relation to the displaced people in Calais and Grand-Synthe, Ms Whitaker urged people in France and in the UK, which funds a significant chunk of the police operations in the border zone, to contact their MP, MEP or the Interior Minister of France to apply political pressure on the French government to change their current policy.

“If people can spread the word that there is still a sizeable displaced community in northern France, and share the horrible conditions and evictions that they are subjected to, we can show them, and the French government that they're not just a hidden population that they can 'evict' away,” she told The National.

Names of refugees in this article have been anonymised to protect identities.

Updated: July 28, 2019 10:21 PM

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