Flickr/Global Justice Now, CC BY 2.0
A month ago, on September 19th, I joined a protest in Calais in support of the rights and humanity of the estimated four thousand inhabitants of ‘the Jungle’. We marched, heard the stories of scores of refugees and watched an inspiring and creative protest pass off without so much as a moment of conflict. French police stood impassively at a distance, fewer in number than I had been expecting.
A month before, on August 20th, Home Secretary Theresa May and French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve signed a “Joint Ministerial Declaration” which set out their mutual ambition to resolve what they fairly described as a “local manifestation of an international issue”, while “safeguarding the vulnerable”. As I investigated a handful of recent instances of police aggression toward the refugees there, it became overwhelmingly clear that the situation on the ground demonstrates this declaration, and two of its stated aims particularly, to be at best meaningless and at worst wilfully dishonest.
Two days after the protest, French police undertook two simultaneous evictions. The first was in Calais town, where a number of mostly Syrian refugees, who had been camping at the edge of a park, were corralled, separated from their belongings and marched toward the Jungle. Volunteers from L’Auberge des Migrants and Secours Catholiques were alerted, and given thirty minutes to gather up the refugees’ tents and possessions. According to Clare Moseley, a volunteer who was present, “when that half an hour ran out, and we hadn’t collected it all, the police started putting what was left in the bin, and we weren’t allowed to save anything else”. Meanwhile, those among the Syrian refugees who refused to walk were sprayed with CS gas.
At the same time, at the western edge of the Jungle, French police barricaded a number of the main routes between the camp and Calais town. With the majority of aid workers in the area focused on the situation in town, the police set about the eviction of a further forty to fifty tents, with not a moment’s notice. Clare was one of the first volunteers on the scene:
“What was happening when I arrived there was much worse than in town. In the area under the bridge, where people had been camped, police had fired tear gas amongst people’s tents to flush people out. Then they held them back with barricades, and they bulldozed the tents, and put everything into skips. Where we had thirty minutes to deal with the eviction in town, here they gave us zero.”
Clare saw refugees “begging the police to stop”, while she herself pleaded in vain for just “five minutes” to go behind the barricade and retrieve some of the refugees’ meagre possessions. In those tents were “phones, photos of family that they might not see again, the only personal items they had”. Those tents also contained the only documentation, if any, that those refugees carried with them. Passports, identity papers or records of incomplete asylum applications, pulverised and binned along with the donated tents that housed them.
The following day, French police stopped a convoy of lorries on the motorway flyover from under which the tents had been cleared the previous day. A small crowd gathered to watch. “They’re bored,” says Clare, “there’s nothing to do in the camp. Also, whenever that happens, some refugees gather and try to take the opportunity to hide on a lorry. Around five or ten young refugees threw stones, and started shouting at the police – ‘Look what the police did to us yesterday! We hate the police!’”
Snatches of video footage show tear gas choking the air around the entrance to the Jungle, and appear to substantiate Clare’s claim that, during a stand-off which lasted around half an hour, French police “were firing at random, into the areas where families lived, and the refugees couldn’t get close enough to tell them.”
Clare is in no doubt what provoked this exchange. “Two of the refugees throwing stones had their faces covered, and whenever I walked up to them they would turn away, and wouldn’t look at me. Usually in the camp people are so open with you, they only want to engage with you. It made me think of what the guys from No Borders had said.” No Borders, the activist group with a chapter based in the camp, had warned Clare when she first arrived two months ago of an undercover police presence amongst the migrants – something she said she hadn’t believed until that point.
Undercover police presence or not, seeing the footage of September 22nd – gas canisters and rubber bullets fired from behind riot shields, refugees on the receiving end – made me doubt that there had been any ulterior motive to the evictions of the previous day. I had to agree with Clare: “It was just cruel, for no reason. They’re punishing us.” I re-read the document bearing the signature of two of the UK and France’s most senior politicians, who, we are told, “share concerns about the difficult living conditions of migrants in Calais.”
The Joint Declaration makes a number of somewhat general claims, but two stand out. The first is this: that “the government of France … has implemented a specific plan to deal with asylum seekers in Calais ... a fast track process for migrants to claim asylum.” I couldn’t shake the feeling that disposing of a refugee’s last remaining documents of identity or family contact details ran counter to this assertion.
At the Tory Party conference this year, Theresa May delivered a grotesque and factually inaccurate address in which she promised to deny certain rights of asylum to those who arrive in the UK illegally. This would perhaps be a laudable intention had the UK’s asylum process not already stacked the odds against any refugee hoping to claim asylum. “It’s a very difficult, bureaucratic, and long process,” explains Zoe Gardner of Asylum Aid, a charity which offers free legal support to asylum seekers, including some of those who have arrived from Calais, “and without good legal representation, you’re going to have a real problem.”
Claims for asylum in the UK can only be made while stood on UK soil, and access to the UK is only granted with a valid visa. In the past, this routinely meant that an asylum seeker arriving in the UK without a visa could claim asylum at immigration control. However, as a part of Anglo-French “juxtaposed border controls”, UK immigration control for the Channel is based in Calais, meaning that the UK Border Agency has built itself a loophole whereby refugees can be turned away for not having a visa, without being given the opportunity to apply for asylum. Furthermore, a European Council Directive dissuades commercial airlines from transporting asylum seekers into the EU by making them liable for the cost of repatriation in cases of failed claims. The end result of all this leaves refugees no option but to enter the country illegally if they wish to make an asylum claim.
Zoe shone a light for me on one important consequence of the actions of the French police that might result once a refugee reaches the UK illegally, and is refused asylum. It is very likely that without documentary evidence of his nationality he could also be refused repatriation by the authorities of his home country. An indefinite stay at the notorious Yarl's Wood detention centre awaits any refugee in that position, and it is not a stretch to say that the actions of the French police last week exposed some of the refugees involved to the possibility of such a fate. Zoe was similarly in no doubt why: “the French police just don’t care. They don’t care about the reality of where they go, or what becomes of them – they just don’t want them there. They want to make it as horrible as possible.”
Back to the Joint Declaration: “The French government will increase access to [the asylum process], so that any migrant with a well-founded fear of persecution can secure protection from French authorities.” In light of the events of last week, the phrase “protection from French authorities” had taken on a meaning I imagine May and Cazeneuve had not intended. Almost all those living in the Jungle are here fleeing persecution – religious, social or economic – but that persecution is not over yet.
“Both governments,” the document goes on, “retain a strong focus on protecting the most vulnerable, and the fight against human trafficking.” To be homeless, thousands of miles from a home and a life to which you cannot return, might be considered vulnerable enough. But the document stresses that this applies particularly to women and children, as well as those at risk of trafficking. Even by their own terms, our Home Secretaries are failing to honour their agreement.
It is estimated that 10% of the refugees in Calais are women and children. In the last few weeks, the secure government centre which housed them has reached its capacity (of around 300) and so, as Clare describes, “in the last week we’ve seen a massive increase in the number of women and children – even unaccompanied children – wandering around the Jungle. They’re having to live there at night, too.” The general risks associated with women and children living in this unpoliced and overwhelmingly male environment are obvious, but Clare recounted a specific example, of an Iraqi family who had recently come to L’Auberge des Migrants for help.
“We had to take them out of the camp and into our hotel because they had three very young daughters. They had fled Iraq because the wife’s brother wanted to perform female circumcision on the daughters. They had fled across Europe but they felt very strongly that the brother and his contacts had pursued them, and they were terrified and convinced that they were in the camp. They are now planning to attempt to cross to the UK – grown men try that crossing every night, and some of them die. They’re going to try that crossing with three young girls. If that declaration includes a requirement to protect vulnerable people, that requirement is being absolutely failed.”
Living conditions in the Jungle are dire, and only getting worse. We should not be surprised that ever more desperate attempts to reach the UK are being made. Promises to make the asylum process as easy as possible for residents of the Jungle are a mockery while the last possessions of desperate refugees are bulldozed and binned, making the asylum process demonstrably more difficult. It’s worth bearing in mind, if you’re one of the many who’ve generously contributed clothes, bedding or tents to Calais in recent weeks, those donations might have been thrown away by French police. Just months after our Home Secretary put her name to a document which asserts her conviction to “protect the vulnerable”, she promises to isolate us from the greatest humanitarian crisis in living memory. Calais is not, as May would have us believe, populated by “the wealthiest, luckiest and strongest” of the millions who have fled the horrors of Syria, Iraq or Sudan. It is populated by desperate, isolated refugees, and they need help, not tear gas or empty words.
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