Shortly after he became president of France last year, Emmanuel Macron had a hopeful vision for humanely addressing the country’s asylum crisis. “By the end of the year, I do not want to have men and women on the streets, in the woods. I want emergency accommodation everywhere.”
None of this has happened.
Tomorrow, Macron visits Calais, northern France. More than a year after the closure of the “Jungle” camp in the town, 600-700 asylum seekers and migrants, including 100-150 unaccompanied children, still live outdoors in increasingly desperate conditions. They face police harassment and violence, and are at risk from the cold. This reality sits starkly at odds with Macron’s commitments to a humane approach.
Last summer, Human Rights Watch found that police in Calais used excessive force toward asylum seekers and migrants, routinely using irritant gas, confiscating their sleeping bags, blankets, and clothing, disrupting aid delivery, and harassing aid workers.
The Ministry of the Interior and the prefect have denied any abuse from the police. But in October, the French administration and security forces’ internal investigations departments found convincing evidence that police used excessive force and committed other abuses, and they made a series of recommendations for this to change. These include ensuring officers are correctly using aerosol sprays, wear visible identification at all times, and use cameras during operations and identity checks.
Despite those recommendations, abuses continue. In December, more than 30 asylum seekers and migrants, as well as aid workers, told me police are still destroying and confiscating tents, shelters, and belongings – coinciding with winter’s arrival. As Kuma (not his real name), 17, told me, “When [the police] come, they beat us. They take our sleeping bags, our jackets, every time. They hit me sometimes. They use gas, all over my face. They say, ‘Don’t sleep. Go!’”
True, water and sanitation for migrants in Calais has improved. But emergency accommodation for winter is only opened when the weather is particularly severe, and there are not enough places for everyone.
France can do better.
Macron should call for the abusive policing practices to stop immediately, and for authorities to implement the October report’s other recommendations. Emergency accommodation should always be opened for those who would otherwise be homeless this winter.
The authorities should also commit to ensure migrants have full access to information and asylum procedures without undue delays. Macron’s rhetoric should become reality, and it should start now in Calais.