Migrants have claimed for months that French police are deliberately harassing them, as the city refuses to comply with a court-order to provide basic aid.
According to dozens of aid workers and migrants in Calais, police frequently use pepper-spray, batons and identity checks to make life painful and difficult for asylum-seekers.
“They see refugees, they go towards them and the police have two things in their hands,” says Maya Konforti, a staffer at l’Auberge des Migrants. “They have a baton on one side, and in the other hand, they have a can of teargas.”
Pepper spraying is the most commonly alleged abuse and has become an accepted discomfort for migrants hoping to reach the United Kingdom from Calais. They say they are often sprayed at close range and while they are sleeping or engaging in otherwise non-threatening behaviour.
Many of the migrants also said that their few possessions sleeping bags, blankets, food and water - were regularly confiscated and sprayed by the police during surprise raids.
“The whole idea is to try to arrive to this point where it will be so difficult to be in Calais for refugees that they will be discouraged and not come any more,” said Konforti.
Regional official Fabien Sudry "categorically denied the false and defamatory allegations" in the Human Rights Watch report, saying they "have no evidential basis".
"Police of course operate in Calais respecting the rules of law, with the sole objective of ensuring public order and security,” he told the AFP news agency.
Migrant numbers grow again
The migrant population in Calais was at an all-time low after the city’s infamous “Jungle” camp was evacuated last year. But since February it has risen to an estimated 600, which many believe concerns local authorities who don’t want a second refugee crisis.
Authorities continue to block charities from distributing supplies, as they have done since February when police claimed the practice was a security threat, citing France’s ongoing state of emergency.
A court ruled against the ban and said it amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.
In late June a Lille court ordered the city to provide basic aid, notably access to water and restrooms. But City of Calais has yet to act on those orders and has filed an appeal that is currently pending in French courts.
“All of these are very localised, very clear efforts to keep asylum seekers off balance, that don’t really seem to have any connection to security or public order,” said Michael Bochenek, a Human Rights Watch researcher who wrote the report released on Wednesday.
It notes that, despite French laws forbidding people from aiding migrants in the country without authorisation, there is an exception for humanitarian activities like the delivery of food, water and health services.
“There is no legal basis, as far as we can tell, for preventing aid groups from handing out food in the way that they've been doing so,” Bochenek said.
Police reject accusations
In addition to blocking aid groups from distributing supplies, police have begun to aggressively target them with minor fines and petty violations, the campaign groups say.
L’Auberge des Migrants received a 58-euro ticket for not having enough windshield wiper fluid in one of their vehicles.
On another occasion an official from the local health authority said their kitchen was out of code and required them to make 120,000-euros-worth of upgrades.
Volunteers say they are also regularly stopped for identity checks, which they believe are just to slow them down.
“Even though the police chief knows us, has already checked out identities, knows who we are, they like to recheck every day or every other day and it’s clearly to intimidate us, to give us a hard time” said Konforti.
Requests to Calais police for an interview to respond to these allegations were denied. However, a police spokesperson issued a written statement to RFI via email.
“The action of the police is of course carried out in compliance with the law. In a state governed by the rule of law, anyone can lodge a complaint and seize the services of the General Inspectorate of the National Police. However, no complaint of police violence against migrants has been filed. The security forces mobilized in Calais ensure public order, the security of the people of Calais and the security of migrants”
Before Human Rights Watch released their report, Bochenek sat down with authorities in Calais and Paris for what he says was a “defensive” discussion.
“[The police chief] said that any allegations police had engaged in indiscriminatory use of force, including misuse of pepper spray against migrants, was slander,” he said. “He said that would have to be proved on a case by case instance before he would order the police to undertake any investigation of broader practices.”
The report by Human Rights Watch says the current policing strategy is counterproductive and recommends that Calais reestablish a centre for migrants, most of whom hope to cross the Channel to Britain.
“The real pull factor, if there is one, is the Channel… not the fact that there is any asylum office or not in Calais,” Bochenek said. “That fact of geography is really the thing that is pulling people up to Calais and that’s not going to change at all.”