Bethany* takes a short break from sifting through the dozens of Whatsapp messages she receives every day, from people in urgent need of help or advice. Sitting in the caravan-turned-office where she works as part of a small team of volunteers, providing refugees in northern France with information, wifi and a place to charge their phones, she thinks for a moment before describing the approach of the French state to what, despite a total lack of recent media coverage, is still very visibly a humanitarian crisis. “I would say it’s been pretty much ignoring the problem until it gets too big,” she says, “and then reacting with severe violence and severe force”.
Around 1000 refugees remain desitute in the region, living mainly in industrial spaces and forests around Calais and Dunkirk. Some are children. They are routinely evicted by the French police, who frequently take their belongings and often violently assault them, according to witness statements and reports. A lack of legal ways to enter the UK drives many people into the hands of smugglers, who prey on their desperation to cross the channel and claim asylum in the next door country.
For a period in 2015 and 2016, coverage of refugees living in the crowded, makeshift camp which came to be known as ‘the Jungle’ dominated the British headlines. But since the camp was bulldozed in October 2016, the humanitarian crisis on the British border has largely disappeared from the public radar. In the same way the situation actually began years before it was picked up by the media and general public (a Red Cross camp was first established in Calais in 1999 to shelter some of the hundreds of migrants sleeping rough in and around the city), it goes on now, forgotten.
Bethany describes the situation in northern France as politically and racially charged in “every single dynamic”. Gronja, who works with Bethany at Refugee Info Bus agrees, pointing out that if it was French or English people sleeping rough, being beaten and abused, the situation would be very different. “To think that there could be 12, 13, 14-year-old European children living outside is shocking and there would be more thunder and more rage about it” she says. “Especially if they were being exposed to police brutality and exploitation [from smugglers] every single day.”
The settlements in Calais and Dunkirk are a product of state neglect, from both French and British governments – a failure to provide adequate care which meets the needs of the transient communities who pass through northern France on their way to the UK.
With no adequate shelter provided by the state and little to no established NGO presence, an aid gap has always existed in the area. Since the refugee crisis hit the mainstream in 2015, thousands of inexperienced, well-intentioned volunteers from France, the UK and other countries have worked together to try and plug this gap, compensating for the absence of larger organisations by pioneering a new form of grassroots humanitarianism. According to the largest volunteer group, Help Refugees, it is estimated over 25,000 people have offered their time in the last four years, providing aid to roughly 55,000 people.
Volunteers, however, are not equipped to fix a crisis which demands enormous resources and where the solutions must be political.
Whilst the French state has increased its humanitarian provisions, and now meets some human rights needs, namely basic food and water requirements, and limited emergency accommodation, it still fails to provide many key provisions. There is still no missing children’s unit, no human trafficking unit, no shelter for refugees to stay in, and no processing centre so people can start their UK asylum claims in France.
Worse still, the state is often the enemy, with refugees frequently reporting aggressive, forced evictions and police violence.
Diego works for the Human Rights Observatory, a small organisation that collects data and produces reports on police activity in northern France. He believes the situation is getting worse, with frequent and often politically-motivated evictions forcing more people to sleep rough, particularly in Calais, where the mayor is notoriously hostile to migration.
“The major living space in Calais has recently been evicted, so a lot of the community that used to live there are looking for another place to go,” he says. “There’s been a policy in Calais of displacing people every day and making every potential living space uninhabitable and inhospitable”.
The mayor of Grande Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk where there is a refugee camp and large migrant population, is more sympathetic, Diego adds. “He has taken steps to make the conditions of displaced people in his local authority more humane”.
Yet an eviction is looming there too. “In Dunkirk, a large part of displaced community has been staying in a gym opened by mayor,” Diego says. “This gym might be closed soon, so people will have no indoor shelter again.”
It is thought that the UK has spent at least £100 million on security in northern France in the past three years, including £44.5 million at the start of last year, according to a Press Association report. According to the report, the additional funds were to be spent on security fencing, CCTV and “detection technology” in Calais and other French ports on the Channel.
“[The money spent on security] makes me so angry,” Gronja says, as she taps away at her computer, trying to get various information sheets translated into the seven languages needed in northern France. “The amount of things that money could go on… accommodation centres, psychological support, legal aid.
“That money could make safe and secure places where people would actually want to live, instead it’s being spent on police who are violent, who spend their days just driving around evicting people every day from the only living space they have.”
The protection of unaccompanied minors in northern France is arguably the most serious and tragic problem. A recent Home Office document revealed children are waiting ten times longer than they were two years ago to be transferred from hostels in France to their families in the UK. Children living in foster homes and hostels have been on hunger strike, and there has been at least one attempted suicide.
“There are so many minors who have family in the UK [who are] trying to claim asylum but haven’t been able to because the Home Office are blocking it,” Bethany says. “They’ve been waiting for six months in accommodation centres to try and get to UK to meet with family, and they haven’t got that support.”
It is common, Bethany says, for children to feel they’re better off trying to get into the country illegally and to take enormous risks as a consequence. “They also have fear of the government, as well from the abuse they’ve experienced from the French police,” she says. “There is a thinking that they have a better chance by crossing on lorries or working with people [smugglers] who can get them across”.
On 28 February 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the the French state in a landmark case. The Court determined in the hearing ‘Khan v France’ that the French government violated its duty of care to a 12-year-old unaccompanied minor in the now demolished Calais ‘Jungle’.
But volunteers say little seems to be changing as a result. “It’s one argument to protect those above 18 years old, but its a whole other game to not even provide any form of safeguarding or protection to those under 18,” Gronja says.
“There’s 12 and 13 and 14-year-olds living outside and the French government is fully aware of that. The statistics are there, the evidence is there… They are living in fields. They disappear all the time. There’s no missing child unit, there’s no human trafficking unit. Everything that points towards children being exploited, all of the risks are there and there’s no response.”
The situation in northern France is characterised by some of the deepest political tensions in Europe. It sits at the interface of humanitarianism and politics, with refugees living in Calais and Dunkirk demanding political solutions and volunteers agreeing that in order for real change to occur, refugees must be given the right to access the UK safely and legally. This stands in contrast with EU migration law, which dictates that refugees should claim asylum in the first safe country they enter.
On Sunday 31 March 2019, 150 refugees, volunteers and local residents came together to protest in Calais. Organised by Appel d’air, a spontaneous movement of refugees from several different communities, the protest was designed to mobilise people against the hostile environment imposed on them by the French and British states.
Calls for a change to the Dublin III regulation, which states a refugee must claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in, are at the core of the collective’s beliefs. ‘‘It is neither realistic nor effective”, they write on their newly founded social media platform. “It is a form of prolonged torture. We are forced into being nomads, an existence which spirals into more and more instability and risk”.
Currently, most refugees are fingerprinted upon arrival in Europe to assist the Dublin system. The fingerprints are entered on to an international database, which is then used to prevent them from claiming asylum in another country. As a result, refugees can get trapped in limbo in peripheral states like Greece, Italy and Hungary where they don’t speak the language and don’t have friends or family. Some make it to France without getting fingerprinted, only to find there is no way to enter the UK – despite many speaking English or knowing people in the country –and they cannot apply for UK asylum at the border.
“Refugees flee their countries out of fear, for better opportunities and freedom,” say Appel d’air. “But this isn’t what happens upon arriving in Europe… because of the way the Dublin regulations work, many consider [reaching] the UK [by illegal means] as their last option. These treacherous regulations push people to risk their life at the border”.
Activists in France are pushing for a new system to process UK asylum applications at the border, to replace the current rules which dictate that people must make it into the country first, incentivising young migrants to take huge risks.
Is your country free?
Refugee Info Bus presents a short interview with a member of one of the communities that we work with, discussing the large-scale eviction that took place in Calais on Tuesday, March 12th, 2018.
The ineffectiveness of building more fences and walls in Calais, the effects of the Dublin regulation and the role that Europe has to play indirectly causing migration as a result of supporting dictatorships and straining natural resources are among the topics discussed. Asylum seekers who come to Europe are met with hostile politics, police brutality, insecurity and a violation of their basic human rights. These invisible lines that separate Europe from the rest of the world have become highly politicized spaces.
Displaced persons in Northern France are continuously subject to inhumane and degrading treatment by the authorities. The French state has failed to provide any form of adequate protection and safety for those residing within its territory. We must continue to condemn and speak out about the injustices facing displaced persons across Europe. We have a duty to hold governments accountable for there role in denying basic human rights to all.
Please like and share this video, write to your MP, talk about the situation in Calais among family, friends and co-workers and highlight the human rights abuses happening every day in Europe.
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Posted by Refugee Info Bus حافلة المعلومات للاجئين مسیر راهنمای پناهندگان on Monday, 18 March 2019
An interview with a refugee in northern France, by Refugee Info Bus
Back in the Refugee Info Bus, Gronja reflects on the pressure civic humanitarians are under in northern France.
“I think you have to accredit [sic] people who are trying to fill the shoes of all of these big organisations,” she says. “The stuff you witness and the statements you get told by people… and this happens in broad daylight, and it’s like, where is Human Rights Watch?”
Human Rights Watch have, in fact, published several reports on the situation in northern France, but volunteers criticise the organisation having no static presence in the area.
A pattern of pro-migrant civic mobilisation in response to absences from governments and established humanitarians is visible across Europe, with a huge volunteer presence in places like Greece as well as northern France.
“The media is dead,” Gronja says, referring to the lack of reporting on the situation in Calais since the Jungle was demolished, “and it is put on the backs of really young volunteers who are earning no salary, who don’t have twenty years of experience, to have to be the ones who are shouting and trying to call out a government to try and make a change”.
When asked what changes he would like to see in Calais, Diego answers quickly, with a list of things that volunteers simply cannot provide on their own. “Upholding basic human rights in the area,” he says, “the right to dignified living conditions, to shelter and safety, access to water, food and sanitation, and better access to asylum – both French and British – because currently there is no legal route to [the] UK.”
But there is a shared feeling among volunteers and refugees that, rather than progress being made, the situation in northern France is being forgotten about.
“It’s that feeling of people don’t care anymore,” Diego says. “Calais is old news and people have just accepted it. You can see it in the French state, you can see it in the French police who come here – they just accept that this is what they do – ‘we evict people and we’re trying to get rid of migrants’. It’s such a dangerous mentality.”
When asked if he is hopeful advocating for migrants will bring the changes he wants to see, Diego is cautiously optimistic. “Under the current British government? No,” he says. “But perhaps fundamental changes could happen under a different government and we will have the advocacy ready for when it comes.”
* Everybody interviewed for this piece asked to be identified by their first name only to protect their safety and ability to work in the area.