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Refugees turn to illegal channel crossings after forced evictions from Calais in France

The remaining 1,500 refugees still stuck in the infamous Calais ‘Jungle’ camp are being violently displaced by French police. A ‘Help Refugees’ census of 2016 counted 7,307 migrants at the camp and this figure was reported to have surged to 10,000 after the Brexit referendum. The destruction of camps has forced many of the refugees, largely Afghan, Eritrean or Sudanese, and a small population of Iranians, mostly men aged between 18 and 25, to sleep without shelter.

This forced displacement adds to a period of unrest in France. In recent protests across the country, three people have died, more than 100 people have been injured and nearly 400 people have been arrested in angry protests over the cost of living in France.

Police armed with teargas and batons are said to be clearing what remains of the camps, forcing the remaining refugees to flee with nowhere to go. The evictions are said to be as many as 20 per week, with figures showing that 78 camps were cleared in October and 77 the month before in September. There are currently 1,500 refugees in the DIY camps in Calais, and the new spate of ‘clearances’ by the French authorities have led to a spike in the number of attempted boat crossings in the Channel; an estimated 195 people are said to have entered British waters by boat from northern France in October and November 2018.

Calais “Jungle” camp

The camp, that was in heaviest use between January 2015 and October 2016, saw an estimated 6,000 refugees and migrants take up temporary residence there. Living conditions in the camp were extremely poor and those living there had no access to sanitary or washing facilities. The accommodation was comprised of makeshift shelters or tents and food was in short supply, leading to the pejorative moniker “the Calais Jungle”.

Cases of abuse were also recounted and revealed. A 2017 Human Rights Watch Report entitled “Like Living in Hell” detailed some of the abuse by police and authorities after the camp was closed. The report found that up to 500 asylum seekers and other migrants were living on the streets and in wooded areas around the French city of Calais.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that a year ago the French riot police (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, CRS), regularly use pepper spray on adult and child migrants while sleeping or,

“in other circumstances which they pose no threat.”

HRW found that police were also found to be disrupting the delivery of humanitarian assistance by using pepper spray on the migrant’s food and water sources. HRW and other international rights organisations called for an end to the abuses by the French authorities in Calais, but these calls seem to go unheard as similar abuses continue today.

New report on police abuse in Calais

A new report will be released echoing many of the concerns of HRW’s report of last year. Calais-based organisation Human Rights Observers and a French group called L’Auberge des Migrants report on events between November 2017 and November 2018. Their study shows that 393 separate camp evictions were carried out in that year. The report also demonstrates some very shocking levels of violence and abuse carried out by French authorities and security services; almost 1,000 complaints of violence and intimidation by police were logged in the same 12-month period.

Josh Hallam, field manager for the UK-based charity Help Refugees, said police hostility against refugees had reached new heights.

“The police have started using this strategy of repeatedly coming into the camps and taking possessions, including tents. There’s a constant repetitive police presence which we haven’t seen in Grande-Synthe before,”

“They constantly keeping people moving and making sure they have no stability.”

Hallam said that the “sheer desperation” of refugees in the winter months led to a growing number taking “huge risks” to get across the Channel.

Increase of UK boat crossings and traffickers

French maritime police figures state that there has been a sharp surge in attempted crossings with 28 vessels holding around 195 people setting sail from France to cross the 51-mile Channel to the UK in October and November. The UK’s Home Office has so far refused to release figures on the actual number of people that have arrived by boat to the UK. However, reports from the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) suggest that there have been a dozen boats arrive to the UK in the past week alone.

The number of children in camps and boarding boats with their families is also a concern for charities and refugee organisations in the UK and France. A report in the Independent suggests that there are hundreds of refugees living in the woods near the camps, a number of whom are young children.

UK government response

On the 27 November the UK Home Secretary confirmed that a new UK-France Coordination and Information Centre has opened in Calais as part of the ongoing co-operation between the UK and France to ‘tackle criminality at the border’.

The Home Office statement went on to detail what the work of the centre would entail.

“The centre will see Border Force working closely alongside Police Aux Frontieres as part of a 24/7 operation to:

  • assist with preventing illegal attempts to cross the shared border
  • exchange real-time intelligence between UK and French agencies to combat cross-border criminality
  • work on the prevention of threats to public order on cross-border infrastructure
  • provide analysis of cross-Channel traffic flows.”

The UK Home Office said they would also be doing all in their power to stop illegal trafficking gangs that were preying on vulnerable migrants and taking vast sums of money to get them across into the UK. Of the 100 people that have entered British waters by boat this month, reports on the ground say that traffickers are charging up to £6,000 a trip.

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