A French priest and two activists will continue their hunger strike over the treatment of migrants in Calais after rejecting a mediator’s offer to end unannounced police operations to rip down makeshift camps.
Father Philippe Demeestere, 72, has said evictions must stop before they call off their protest in the French port city, a key stop on the migrant trail from Africa and the Middle East to the UK.
The trio, who are into the fourth week of their protest, want evictions to be halted for five months to avoid unnecessary hardship during the harsh winter months. If authorities do that, the priest told Radio France he would call off the protest and “take out the champagne”.
“I look at the situation through the eyes of a child I have seen shivering with cold in the morning,” he said.
French authorities have been waging a relentless campaign for the last five years to stop migrants setting up camps in the woods. Migrants have pitched tents on wasteland and under bridges as they plot the final leg of their journey to the UK, but police have launched early morning raids to disrupt their plans.
Migrants have told The National how officers have confiscated sleeping bags and shelters and used pepper spray to make food and other items unusable.
President Emmanuel Macron's government has made no secret of its determination to prevent the emergence of a new “Jungle”, the sprawling Calais shantytown that housed up to 10,000 migrants before it was demolished in 2016.
Rights groups estimate that there are now at least 2,000 people living in desperate conditions in and around Calais as winter approaches, playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities.
A mediator promised that the authorities would no longer leave migrants to wander the streets and would give them places in shelters in the wider region, but stopped short of promising an end to evictions.
Didier Leschi, the head of the national immigration office, said the government would soften its approach.
He said that migrants would be given “about 45 minutes” to gather their possessions and that there would be “no more surprise evictions.”
The government argues that camps attract people smugglers, who command extortionate fees to help migrants cross to Britain, either in small boats crossing the Channel in the dead of night, or stowed away on a lorry crossing by ferry, or through the Channel Tunnel.
More than 20,000 people have made the dangerous trip across the English Channel to the UK by small boat since the start of the year, figures show. UK authorities rescued or intercepted 456 people who attempted the crossing on Tuesday.
The number of crossings has prompted Amnesty International UK to call for an overhaul of the UK's asylum system. Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced plans to increase sentences for those involved in the illegal trade, to deter people from making the journey.
Chief executive Sacha Deshmukh said: “We need to remember that these dangerous crossings are taking place because the government has provided no safe alternative for people to exercise their right to seek asylum here.
“If Priti Patel is truly concerned with tackling criminal gangs and their exploitation of people, she needs to set up safe asylum routes so people no longer need to depend on smugglers.”
“It's misleading and deeply unhelpful to say France is a 'safe country' when, as ministers should know, many people who are perfectly entitled to seek asylum in Britain are trapped in miserable conditions in camps in northern France.”