French activists end five-week hunger strike over treatment of migrants

Anaïs Vogel and Ludovic Holbein say they have won 'meagre' concessions from France's government

Two activists have ended their 37-day hunger strike over the treatment of migrants despite the French government snubbing their main demand to suspend the break-up of makeshift camps during the winter months.

Anaïs Vogel and Ludovic Holbein welcomed what they described as “meagre” commitments offered after a direct appeal to President Emmanuel Macron, but said their protests had thrown a spotlight on the treatment of migrants in and around the coastal port of Calais.

The pair started their hunger strike at a church in Calais along with a Catholic priest, following the death of a teenager from Sudan after he fell from a lorry in an attempt to smuggle himself to the UK.

The activists said that at least four other people had died on the borders of the UK and France, with others missing or in hospital, during their campaign. The priest, Father Philippe Demeestere, 72, called off his protest 10 days ago.

The French authorities have launched early morning operations targeting makeshift migrant camps for years as they try to prevent a repeat of the sprawling camp in Calais known as the “Jungle”.

The “Jungle” became home to thousands of people on a former landfill site near Calais before it was pulled down in 2016.

Migrants and charities working with them have long complained of brutal tactics by French police, including destroying tents and using pepper spray to make sleeping bags unusable.

A senior French official wrote to the hunger-strikers at the weekend promising that migrants would have time to collect their belongings before camp clearances, and making a commitment towards permanent accommodation for migrants.

The letter was in line with commitments from Didier Leschi, the head of the national immigration office, who promised that the government would soften its approach towards migrants.

He said that migrants would be given “about 45 minutes” to gather their possessions and that there would be “no more surprise evictions.”

He also said accommodation would be provided for 300 people, which campaigners said was too limited in view of the demand in the region.

“These commitments are far from what we asked for. Nevertheless, we will be attentive to ensure that they are effectively put in place,” the pair said at a news conference on Tuesday.

“We remain angry that the state has not yet committed to a moratorium on evictions during the winter.”

The pair announced a protest in Paris on Sunday to continue to press the French government on the issue.

The French city is a key stop on the migrant trail from Africa and the Middle East to the UK.

Improved security at lorry stops and ports has led to encampments springing up for people trying to find ways to cross the English Channel to the UK.

Rights groups estimate 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.

The French 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 lorries 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 and even jet-skis since the start of the year, figures show.

The number of crossings has prompted Amnesty International UK to call for an overhaul of Britain's asylum system. It called for safe asylum routes into the UK so people no longer relied on smugglers.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced plans to increase sentences for those involved in the illegal trade, to try to deter people from making the journey.

Updated: November 17th 2021, 2:51 PM