French police intimidate volunteers at immigration camps: Amnesty International

The report denounces widespread verbal and physical abuse against human rights defenders

Migrants pack up and leave notorious Jungle camp as authorities demolish the site on October 26, 2016 in Calais, France. Getty Images
Migrants pack up and leave notorious Jungle camp as authorities demolish the site on October 26, 2016 in Calais, France. Getty Images

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International published a report on Wednesday revealing instances of abuse, intimidation and arrests on the part of French authorities towards volunteers assisting migrants in major hotspots including Calais.

The organisation recorded 72 instances of harassment, but real numbers are likely to be much higher. One Amnesty volunteer said she was pushed to the ground and choked by police in what was an unprovoked act of violence.

The 30-page report titled Targeting Solidarity details how people helping and working with asylum-seekers in the informal refugee camps around Calais and Grand-Synthe are routinely targeted by the police and the court system.

“Providing food to the hungry and warmth to the homeless have become increasingly risky activities in northern France, as the authorities regularly target people offering help to migrants and refugees,” Lisa Maracani, Amnesty International’s Human Rights Defenders Researcher, said.

“Rather than attempting to make the lives of migrants and refugees as difficult as possible, French authorities should take concrete measures to alleviate their suffering and provide shelter and support to all those living on the streets.”

When reporting mistreatment of refugees, human rights defenders claim they are not taken seriously. Charlotte Head, a volunteer who made several complaints about police behaviour to the police’s internal investigatory body, was warned that her complaints were “defamatory in character” and could constitute a “crime”.

French authorities are also failing to be transparent about the issue. Cabane Juridique, a local human rights organisation, filed alone more than 60 complaints to different authorities and bodies between January 2016 and April 2019. But according to information provided by the French Ministry of Justice to Amnesty International in May this year, regional courts received just 11 complaints since 2016, and only one was being investigated by prosecutors.

The "Jungle", as the encampment in Calais is known, hosted more than 1,200 refugees and migrants, including unaccompanied children, before being demolished in 2016. Those reaching the northern tip of France are now living in scattered tents have no regular access to food, water, sanitation, shelter or legal assistance.

Amnesty International found this to be coupled with recurring harassment on the part of the authorities. In interviews with the watchdog, one Afghan man said that he was beaten on his back with a baton by police during a forced eviction, and another described how a police officer had urinated on his tent. “I left my country looking for safety, but here I face police abuse…The police come every day to take my tent and clothes,” an Iranian man said.

In Calais and Grande-Synthe, the number of camps and tents destroyed by the authorities has seen an uptick this year compared to 2018, with 391 evictions carried out in the first five months of 2019 alone. Migrants and refugees are at increased risk of violence and abuse after being evicted, the organisation has said.

Volunteers have said they have witnessed police spray migrants with teargas in the face while they were sleeping in the open.

The crackdown is a direct consequence of France’s “no attachment points” policy, the organisation said, which attempts to deter people from staying in the area by ensuring that camps are not set up.

Outreach services such as reception centres and asylum offices are still provided to migrants but they are located a long way from Calais and Grande-Synthe and are often full.

Kate Allen, Amnesty UK’s Director, said “The level of danger facing activists across the globe has reached crisis point. Every day ordinary people are threatened, tortured, imprisoned and killed for simply standing up for their rights and the rights of others.” She called on the UK government to live up to its responsibilities and make sure that the basic rights of migrants trying to reach Britain are respected.

Published: June 5, 2019 03:30 PM


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