Migrants in Calais gather in the rain for a clothing distribution in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Calais, France. 

© Futuro Berg/Help Refugees, October 2017

(Paris) – A report released on October 23, 2017, by the French administration and security forces’ internal investigations departments has found convincing evidence that police used excessive force and committed other abuses against child and adult migrants in Calais, Human Rights Watch said today. The French report comes almost exactly one year after authorities demolished the large migrant camp there, known colloquially as the “Jungle.”

The investigation and report were requested by the Interior Ministry in response to a July report by Human Rights Watch on police abuses against migrants in and around the city. The results of the French investigation are consistent with Human Rights Watch’s principal findings – that police routinely used chemical sprays on migrants, including children, while they were sleeping and in other circumstances in which they posed no threat, and regularly sprayed or confiscated sleeping bags, blankets, and clothing, apparently to press them to leave the area.

“The investigation requested by the Interior Ministry confirms that police in Calais used excessive force and otherwise abuse migrants, including children,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “Local and national authorities should put an end to these practices, discipline officers who abuse their power, and carry out the investigators’ recommendations.”

The French ombudsman’s office (Defenseur des Droits) and many of the aid groups operating in and around Calais, including L’Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees, have published similar reports of police abuse following the closure of the sprawling migrant camp one year ago this week.

Most of the abuses described to investigators were attributed to the French riot police (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, CRS). Among other findings, the French investigation noted that police forces do not regularly comply with the requirement that they wear badges with identifying numbers. As a result, members of the police force who commit abuses cannot be easily identified.

The investigators recommended, among other steps, that police forces ensure that officers are aware of the general rules for the use of aerosol sprays and receive specific instructions about methods authorized in specific operations. The investigators said that police should wear visible identification at all times, and use cameras during operations and identity checks. Human Rights Watch has long advocated requiring police to issue a record of identity checks, commonly called a stop form, as proof of a procedure and to enable accountability in case of abuse.

The investigators said that police forces should enter into dialogue with aid groups. They also said that improving migrants’ access to food, water, and other basic needs would reduce tension in Calais, and with it the need for police intervention.

Until July, local authorities attempted to prevent food distribution by aid groups and refused to provide migrants with access to drinking water and showers, saying that doing so would attract more migrants. The lack of basic services contributed to “a state of physical and mental exhaustion” and “inhuman living conditions” among migrants in and around Calais, the French ombudsman observed in June.

One question the investigators addressed at length is whether the hand-held aerosols used by police forces in Calais contain pepper spray (oleoresin capsicum, OC) or teargas (the popular name for aerosols that usually include the chemical agent 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, or CS), concluding that police employed teargas.

At the same time that Interior Minister Gérard Collomb announced the investigation that resulted in this week’s report, a ministry news release reacted to the Human Rights Watch report with the statement that police used teargas rather than pepper spray, as Human Rights Watch had reported. In fact, the effects of CS spray are more severe, and its long-term effects possibly more harmful, than those of OC pepper spray.

“Protracted debate on whether police forces use OC or CS aerosols misses the point,” Jeannerod said. “The real concern is the routine and indiscriminate way police use these sprays, amounting to excessive force.”

During the investigations, three investigation departments – the inspectorates for the National Police, the Gendarmerie National, and the French State (Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale, Inspection Générale de la Gendarmerie Nationale, and the Inspection Générale de l’Administration) – conducted 93 interviews with representatives of aid groups, police and other authorities, and migrants, as well as Human Rights Watch researchers.

“These recommendations are a step in the right direction,” Jeannerod said. “It’s particularly important for national and local authorities to recognize the urgency of addressing the humanitarian situation migrants face.”