(Paris) – Asylum seekers and migrants living in destitution in the port city of Calais experience harassment and abuse at the hands of French police, Human Rights Watch said today. The abuses described to Human Rights Watch include beatings and attacks with pepper spray as the migrants and asylum seekers walked in the street or hid in trucks in the hope of traveling to the United Kingdom.
Several thousand asylum seekers and migrants, most from Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, are living in makeshift camps or in the streets in Calais. Some said that their treatment by police, a lack of housing for asylum seekers, and delays in the French asylum system had deterred them from seeking asylum in France.
“Asylum seekers and migrants shouldn’t have to face police violence in France, and no one who applies for asylum should be left to live in the street,” said Izza Leghtas, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Providing adequate reception conditions and humane treatment for asylum seekers isn’t only a matter of meeting legal obligations, it is also the right thing to do to help end the limbo for many asylum seekers in Calais.”
In November and December 2014, Human Rights Watch spoke with 44 asylum seekers and migrants in Calais, including 3 children. Most interviews were conducted in groups. The migrants and asylum seekers described what appear to be routine abuses by police officers when they tried to hide in trucks or as they walked in the town.
Nineteen, including two of the children, said police had abused them at least once, including beatings. Eight had visible broken limbs or other injuries, which they alleged were caused by police in Calais and surrounding areas. Twenty one, including two children, said police had sprayed them with pepper spray.
In November, the outgoing local police chief, speaking to reporters, denied allegations of abuse. In a meeting with Human Rights Watch on December 16, officials in the interior minister’s office said they were unaware of reports of police violence against migrants and asylum seekers in Calais but would investigate if allegations were based on “precise facts.” On January 14, the prefect of the Pas-de-Calais department denied any unjustified use of force by police against migrants in Calais.
France faces a crisis of inadequate accommodation for asylum seekers. Currently only a third of those who seek asylum across France are provided with accommodation in reception centers for asylum seekers. As of December 2013, 15,000 asylum seekers were on a waiting list for a place in a reception center and fewer than a third of asylum seekers entitled to accommodation were housed in such centers. The average waiting period was 12 months. A bill before parliament aims to speed up asylum procedures and increase available accommodation in reception centers for asylum seekers across the country.
While there have been asylum seekers and migrants in Calais for over a decade, due to its proximity to the UK by rail and sea, the numbers have sharply risen since the spring of 2014. On January 14, Denis Robin, the prefect of the Pas-de-Calais department, told Human Rights Watch there were about 2,300 asylum seekers and migrants in the Calais area. As of mid-December, local nongovernmental organizations estimated that 200 women and young children were living in camps and that 50 women and young children were in a center run by a local organization.
Most migrants and asylum seekers in Calais have no shelter from the cold and the rain, no access to sanitation, and very limited access to running water. Many depend on food provided by local organizations and volunteers.
The response of the French government to the poor living conditions in Calais has been inadequate and slow, though. The interior minister announced in November that a day center would be made available to provide showers, meals, and legal assistance for 1,500 asylum seekers and migrants by January. But as of January 15, only limited facilities were available on the site until April. Overnight accommodation will not be available until March and will be limited to 100 women and young children.
The government is funding an organization to run a warehouse in Calais in which migrants can sleep for the night, which must open when the temperature is minus 5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit) or less. The authorities have discretion to keep the shelter open even when the temperature is above minus 5 degrees Celsius. The warehouse opened on December 26 and closed on January 2, and reopened on January 14 because of high winds in the region. On January 5, the organization that runs the warehouse informed Human Rights Watch that it had a maximum capacity of 500 places, one third of the 1,500 places promised by the government. Denis Robin told Human Rights Watch that if necessary the capacity could be increased to the 1,500 places promised by the government, but renovation works would be necessary. A similar facility was available in previous years, but with a capacity limited to 120 places.
French government officials informed Human Rights Watch in December and January that steps had been taken to register and process asylum claims promptly. They said that asylum applications had significantly increased in 2014, that 422 places in reception centers had been offered to asylum applicants from Calais, and that 500 additional places had been made available in reception centers outside Calais to accommodate those who claim asylum in Calais, although it is unclear how those places will be allocated and when they will all become available.
While these steps are an improvement, the situation remains dire for many migrants and asylum seekers and the new facilities are very basic. The French government needs to intensify its efforts to ensure that all asylum seekers—including those covered by the Dublin Regulation—are provided with accommodation without delay as EU law requires, Human Rights Watch said. The government should consider making the emergency shelter available independently of the temperature, and ensure there are sufficient places for all undocumented migrants who are sleeping in the open.
The French government should also immediately investigate reports of police abuse against asylum seekers and migrants in Calais and hold anyone found responsible for abuse to account. The government should issue clear guidance to police officers clarifying the prohibition of unjustified and disproportionate use of force, including pepper spray.
“The French government should put a stop to any police abuse and honor its commitment to promptly provide housing to asylum seekers,” Leghtas said. “A lasting solution to the crisis in Calais is long overdue.”
Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Calais
Asylum seekers and migrants have been living in makeshift camps and on the street in the Calais area since the French government closed a center run by the Red Cross in Sangatte, near Calais, in 2002. The center had a capacity of 700 people, but accommodated up to 2,000 and was labeled by the French and UK governments as a pull factor for undocumented migrants seeking to enter the UK.
Hundreds were evicted by the authorities in September 2009. The number of asylum seekers and migrants then decreased to about 200, but in the summer of 2014, numbers increased again, with people fleeing from conflict and repression in Sudan, Syria, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Hundreds were evicted from makeshift camps in Calais in May and July 2014, in most cases without any adequate alternative accommodation being provided.
Most asylum seekers and migrants Human Rights Watch interviewed said they had arrived in Europe through Italy, but that they did not stay there due to poor reception conditions.
The EU’s Dublin Regulation allows EU countries to send asylum seekers back to the first EU country they entered, where they are identified by their fingerprints in an EU-wide database. Many asylum seekers in Calais told Human Rights Watch they avoided providing their fingerprints in Italy or France.
An asylum seeker’s preference for seeking protection in one country over another has no bearing on the validity of their asylum claim.
Reports of Police Abuse
Rosa, 25, who said she was from Eritrea, told Human Rights Watch that on November 14, police officers beat her up when they found her in a truck on the highway. As with others interviewed, she is identified only by her first name, for her protection. The first names of some interviewees were changed at their request.
“The police checked the truck and found me,” she said. “I said, ‘Please help me,’ but they beat me and I collapsed outside the truck. They kicked me on the ground.” Rosa said she lost consciousness and woke up in the hospital’s emergency room. When Human Rights Watch interviewed her on November 25 in a Calais hospital where she had had an operation on her right leg, she said she expected to spend six more weeks in the hospital. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify the cause of her injury.
Salamou, 28, from Eritrea, said that three police officers beat him near a gas station on the evening of November 25.
“I was walking, normal,” he said. “Four policemen got out of their van and beat me with their boots and with a baton. After they beat me a policeman put a torch on me and laughed at me. ‘Just help me,’ I said, but he laughed. They kicked me on the ground, just like a dog.” When Human Rights Watch interviewed Salamou, the day after he said he was beaten by police, he had visible injuries on his nose.
“There are good police and bad police,” said Ahmed Ibrahim, a 17-year-old asylum seeker from Sudan living in a makeshift camp in Calais. He told Human Rights Watch that two policemen had kicked him as he emerged from an empty car, where he and three men were sitting for shelter from the rain. “I wanted to claim asylum here but with this violence, I’d rather they send me back to Sudan. I won’t stay in France. They [the police] hit you, people throw eggs at you. I got a bad image of France.”
Mohammad, 32, from Sudan, said he was walking in the street at midday on November 2 when a police officer beat him on the back with a baton. “I ran and I fell into a hole,” he said. “The police called an ambulance. I spent 20 days in the hospital, my arm was broken in three places.” He had a cast on his arm at the time of the interview.
On December 3, “Aziz,” a 29-year-old from Afghanistan, said police officers had beaten him three days earlier.
“I was in the street using Wi-Fi on my phone at about 11 p.m.,” he said. “When they [police officers] came, I started to run, they pushed me down to the ground... One policeman pushed me, I was down on the ground, they sprayed me [with pepper spray] and when I looked back they beat me. There was blood from my face, under my eye and nose and knee. I didn’t see anything because they first sprayed me then they beat me on my legs, all over my body.” A Human Rights Watch researcher saw traces of injuries on Aziz’s face, and holes in his pants’ knees, which he said were from being pushed and beaten on the ground.
Aziz said police officers had also beaten him 20 days earlier when they found him hiding in a truck on the highway. “They beat me with their hands, punched me on my face, my nose was bleeding. [They beat me] with a stick on my body, then they took me out from the lorry and said ‘Go! Go to the jungle!’” The jungle is a reference to the largest of the makeshift camps where the asylum seekers take shelter.
On November 26, Kader, a 24-year-old from Ethiopia, told Human Rights Watch in the emergency waiting room at a Calais hospital: “I was on the road, on my bike, yesterday at 5 p.m. A white police van with a blue line [which corresponds to the description of a van belonging to the French riot police] stopped. Five policemen got out, one of them pushed me on the shoulder and I fell on my right arm. He kicked me, then sprayed my face.” When a Human Rights Watch researcher met Kader a week later, his arm was in a resin cast and in a sling, fashioned from a scarf.
The French authorities claim that pepper spray is only used to deter large groups from climbing onto trucks. But migrants said it was used in other situations as well. Mohammad, 26, from Sudan, said: “They [the police] spray you like you’re an insect. It’s happened to all of us in the street.”
Souhail, 20, from Iran, said: “Three times police sprayed me when I was in the truck. I was alone. The three times were about a month ago. Police officers opened the door and before saying anything they sprayed my face, I couldn’t see anything and twice they punched me with their boots and hands.”
Lina, 25, from Eritrea, said she had fallen off the steep edge of the highway near the largest camp in Calais when police officers sprayed her face as she tried to get into a truck with a group. “We wanted to go in [the truck], the police came, they said ‘Go! Go!’ and sprayed in my eyes, I fell down,” she said.
In a media interview on November 30, Thierry Alonso, the outgoing director of public safety for the Pas-de-Calais department and chief of police in the Calais area, denied any abuse by law enforcement officials against migrants. He claimed that “whatever the accusations against the police and gendarmes” working under his authority, “everything that can be said is unfounded. There have been no injured and there has been no violence against the migrants.”
In a meeting with Human Rights Watch on December 16, the interior minister’s adviser on policing said that “No police violence is tolerated” and that, while he was not aware of reports of police abuse against migrants and asylum seekers in Calais, any allegations based on precise facts would be investigated.
On January 14, Denis Robin, the prefect of the Pas-de-Calais department, told Human Rights Watch that while there were injured migrants in Calais, their injuries were sustained during attempts to cross over to the UK or inflicted by other migrants. He denied that any were due to excessive and unjustified use of force by police.
Excessive and unjustified use of force by police is prohibited under French criminal law, and a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which France is a party to. Under the United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, may use force “only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.” If the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must exercise restraint and not use any more force than is proportionate to achieve a legitimate objective such as protecting personal safety.
Inadequate Living Conditions
Lack of Shelter, Water, and Sanitation
In November and December, Human Rights Watch visited four makeshift camps in Calais and a group of asylum seekers living in the street. Hundreds of people, including women and very young children, were sleeping in tents, on mattresses outside, with little or no shelter from the cold. During Human Rights Watch’s visit, temperatures were as low as 1 degree Celsius [34 degree Fahrenheit] during the day.
None of the camps have sanitation and access to water is limited. People collect water from the nearest water source. One camp has a water source, but people in the other places had to walk between 300 meters and 2 kilometers to find water.
Local groups estimate that 800 to 900 people live in the largest camp, consisting of two sites near each other referred to locally as “the jungle.” One is on the site of a chemical plant and includes an indoor sports hall where more than 100 people sleep in tents or on the floor. The other site is in a wood nearby. Local groups estimate that 200 women and children, including small children, live in those two camps.
Until a day center partially opened on January 15, local charities provided one daily meal to around 700 asylum seekers and migrants in the city center. For many, it is their only meal of the day and they have to walk there and then wait in line in the cold to receive the food. The new center is 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) away from one of the large makeshift camps in Calais. The mayor of Calais has banned the distribution of meals in places other than the new center, though one of the charities said they would provide meals to people living in that camp twice per week.
The most common concerns cited by people living in the camps were the cold and the lack of access to sanitation. The humanitarian organization Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) provides showers once a week in two camps and to women and children living in the largest camp, with a capacity of 20 to 25 showers per visit.
Zeinab, a 23-year-old woman from Ethiopia living with her husband in the largest camp, told Human Rights Watch that she washes outside with a plastic sheet around her. “More than food, not having a bathroom is a bigger problem,” she said.
Isabelle Bruand, coordinator for Médecins du Monde in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, described the living conditions for asylum seekers and migrants in Calais as “unacceptable and catastrophic.” Bruand listed skin problems such as scabies, stomach aches and headaches due to insufficient food, breathing problems due to humidity, back problems and toothaches as direct or indirect consequences of these living conditions.
Unwillingness to Apply for Asylum in France
The majority of those Human Rights Watch interviewed said they wanted to apply for asylum, but many said they did not do so in France because of a lack of accommodation for asylum seekers, as well as police abuse and hostility from some sections of the local population. Some also mentioned the length of the asylum procedure as a deterrent.
The ordinary asylum application procedure in France takes over two years. The bill before parliament aims to reduce this period to nine months.
Abdallah, 21, from Sudan, told Human Rights Watch on December 3 that he had been living in the largest makeshift camp in Calais for four months.
“I have friends who gave their fingerprints four months ago and they’re living with us in the ‘jungle.’ So I’d rather try and go to the UK,” he said. “Life is very, very hard. There are problems with everything: the bathroom, one meal a day is provided by [the local charity] Salam, sometimes we get help from people here and we’re thankful but it’s not what we expected.”
“People who gave their fingerprints [in France] are staying here with us,” said Nasr-Eddin, a 30 year-old from Sudan living in a camp in Calais. “I would apply for asylum but the problem is accommodation, the cold, food.”
“Ashraf,” a 25 year old asylum seeker from Sudan also living in a camp, said: “We don’t have a place to wash, to pray. France is good but it [the asylum process] takes time. Where do you sleep, eat? I would apply for asylum in France but there’s no place to stay.”
Mohammad Moussa, a 27-year-old asylum seeker from Sudan living in a camp in Calais, said: “People know life in the UK is hard and expensive. France is much better. But here you’re under the rain, in the cold, you get sick. In the UK, I’ll get accommodation and the asylum process will be quicker.”
Salamou, the Eritrean man beaten by police, said he had planned to apply for asylum in France, but that after he was beaten by police he changed his mind and was trying to go to the UK.
Inadequate Response from the French Government
In November, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve made an announcement about the opening of a day center—where meals will be provided outside—for 1,500 asylum seekers and migrants in Calais, saying it would open in January. But only limited facilities—food, water, toilets, and mobile phone charging—were available on the site as of January 15. The complete site with 60 showers and access to legal assistance will not open until April. The site will include separate shelters, with 20 showers, to accommodate 100 women and young children full time, although this facility will not open until March 20. According to the Prefect and to an advisor at the Ministry of Housing this facility could potentially be expanded to accommodate more vulnerable persons if needed. Men will continue to be without shelter during the night.
Under article 13 of the European Union directive of January 27, 2003, laying down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers (the reception directive), EU member states must provide “material reception conditions to ensure a standard of living adequate for the health of applicants and capable of ensuring their subsistence.”
Under French law, asylum seekers are entitled to accommodation in a state reception center (centre d’accueil pour les demandeurs d’asile, CADA), where they also receive social and administrative support while their asylum claim is processed.
Parliament in November approved 500 more places in reception centers in various parts of France to accommodate asylum seekers from Calais.
On December 3, the prefect—government representative—in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region announced that a warehouse would be made available for up to 1,500 migrants in Calais on nights when the temperature is minus 5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit) or less. The warehouse opened on December 26 but it was closed on January 2 when the temperature rose. It reopened on January 14 because of high winds in the Calais region. The organization which runs the warehouse told Human Rights Watch on January 5 that it has a maximum capacity of 500 places.
The French government should comply with its obligations under the EU reception directive and immediately provide accommodation to all asylum applicants while their claims are processed, including those who indicate an intention to seek asylum. The government should also work with humanitarian and nongovernmental groups to help arrange emergency accommodation for any undocumented migrant without shelter in Calais, particularly during the winter months.