‘Living in hell’: New report details police brutality against child migrants in France

caption
Police stop a migrant from returning to the Calais Jungle as the camp is demolished.
source
Christopher Furlong/Getty

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a scathing report outlining, in sometimes gruesome detail, the police brutality against child and adult migrants and asylum seekers in France.

In a 40-page report, titled “Like Living in Hell,” HRW has reported:

    “Frequent and abusive” use of pepper spray by police, even when migrants were asleep, waking up, or walking alone on dark streets. Police pepper spraying food, water, clothing, and blankets, thereby rendering them unfit for consumption and unusable. Police knocking food out of aid workers’ hands for no clear reason other than to deprive migrants. Intimidation and harassment of aid workers.

In a statement published Tuesday evening, Pas-de-Calais department prefect Fabien Sudry, the region’s representative, said he “categorically refutes the slanderous allegations.”

In quotes cited by Reuters, he said the report contained “unverified accusations that discredit our law enforcement.” Sudry added that only three complaints against the police had been submitted since the end of 2016.

The HRW study is based on interviews with 61 migrants, two dozen aid workers, and government authorities in and around Calais and Dunkirk between end June and early July 2017. The migrants, half of which identified as under 18, hailed from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Calais, France refugee camp

caption
An aerial view shows makeshift shelters, tents and containers where migrants live in what is known as the “Jungle”, a sprawling camp in Calais, France, September 7, 2016. Picture taken September 7, 2016.
source
Charles Platiau/Reuters

French authorities dismantled a makeshift refugee camp in Calais – known as the “Jungle” – last October, and relocated 6,500 inhabitants of the shanty-town to temporary shelters across the country.

While authorities hoped that the camp’s closure would help improve migrants’ living conditions – a 2015 study of the camp found rats scuttling around tents, piped water infested with faecal contamination, tuberculosis, and scabies – the reality was vastly different, HRW said.

The emergency shelters, for instance, were only intended to operate for a few months, HRW reported, as French authorities assumed the UK would accept a large number of unaccompanied child refugees after the Jungle’s closure.

This didn’t happen. The UK accepted 200 children under the “Dubs amendment” – a proposal that Britain take in 3,000 unaccompanied child migrants from Europe. But Britain has not taken in a single child under this scheme in 2017 so far, according to The Guardian.

calais jungle migrant camp

caption
A view shows makeshift shelters.
source
Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

In its report, HRW noted that hundreds of the camp’s former inhabitants, including unaccompanied children, had stopped staying in the temporary shelters. They have moved to sleep on roadsides, under bridges, along riverbanks, and in wooded areas in and around Paris, Calais, and Dunkirk.

“If our country were at peace, no one would select this life,” Aster N, a 17-year-old from Ethiopia, told HRW. “Who would want to live like this? Who would choose this situation?”

Police abuse toward migrants

Almost every migrant interviewed by HRW reported “frequent and abusive use” of pepper spray by French police in Calais and Dunkirk – even in situations where it was not completely unnecessary.

Police deployed at Calais Jungle

caption
Police deployed at the Calais Jungle as it is demolished.
source
Christopher Furlong/Getty

The chemical agent, which can cause temporary blindness, high blood pressure, loss of consciousness, and restricted breathing, was used on migrants who were asleep or had just woken up. HRW also found that police had pepper sprayed food and water, rendering them unfit for consumption.

Some interviewees also reported police pepper spraying during food distributions. “I saw two policemen spray [a boy] in the eyes,” a humanitarian worker told HRW. “He took a few steps and then dropped to the ground, on his knees.”

HRW also detailed reports of police deliberately confiscating migrants’ blankets, food, and water for no apparent reason except to drive migrants away from their patch.

Such actions are a clear violation of EU law, HRW said. Article 3 of the European human rights laws states no one can be “subject to torture or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Obstructing of humanitarian assistance

Police regularly prevented aid workers from distributing, and migrants from receiving, humanitarian assistance, the report noted.

Volunteers organise aid for migrants in Calais

caption
Police prevented aid workers from distributing humanitarian assistance in Calais.
source
Jack Taylor/Getty

Aid workers told of multiple occasions where riot police deliberately blocked migrants’ access to aid workers.

Workers in Calais also detailed instances in which police banned or restricted distributions of food and water, knocked food out of their hands, and physically intimidated workers to deter them from operating in their patch.

Vincent Berton, the deputy prefect of Calais, refuted the claims that his department had banned food and water. “These allegations seem inaccurate,” he told HRW.

Humanitarian workers also told HRW of persistent document checks and pat-downs by police, which some of them believed was a tactic to delay aid distribution to migrants.

Police in Calais Jungle

caption
Many inhabitants of the Calais Jungle hope to move to the UK.
source
Christopher Furlong/Getty

“Living in Hell” is not the first report condemning the behaviour of French authorities.

An independent inquiry published by the Human Trafficking Foundation, a London-based charity, in July 2017 also “condemn[ed] in the strongest possible way” the failure of French authorities to safeguard to rights of unaccompanied children and their creation of a “hostile ‘no tolerance’ policy towards migrants in Calais and surrounding areas.”

The review also noted that the actions of the French authorities on the ground had “created a more immediate ‘push factor’ of trafficking to the UK.” Over 100 unaccompanied children flagged by UK agencies as potential victims of human trafficking have gone missing in the past year, The Independent reported last week.