0645 GMT January 16, 2021
When the convoy arrived at the camp, just a few miles from the city center, masked police in black uniforms chased refugees away from their tents and belongings. Some of the other 150 refugees who had been sheltering at the camp had already packed and fled before authorities arrived. Soon the camp was empty; frost-covered sleeping bags and jackets were all that remained, the Guardian reported.
According to figures from Human Rights Observers (HRO), a non-profit that monitors police evictions in northern France, there were 973 evictions in Calais in 2020 – nearly three a day, and more than double the 452 recorded in 2018. In December alone, 526 tents were seized and 41 arrests were made.
“It’s been like this for months,” said Isabella Anderson, an HRO field coordinator. “These constant evictions are part of a policy by the French government to wear down asylum seekers, to fatigue them and take away their hope. It’s like torture.”
Although at several eviction sites, the Guardian was blocked by a perimeter of police, video evidence and first-hand accounts show what campaigners claim are persistent human rights violations during police operations including excessive use of force and destruction of personal property. Reported cases of police violence have included minors being teargassed, a tent with a refugee inside being dragged by a tractor and an Eritrean shot in the face with a rubber bullet from 10 meters, hospitalizing him for two months.
The evictions are on a rolling 48-hour schedule to prevent refugees acquiring limited rights and the police requiring a court order to clear the land.
“They come at 5:00 a.m., circle around your tent and cut it with knives,” said Abdul, a 20-year-old from Sudan who has been in Calais for five months, camping in the bushes in the hope of one day crossing to the UK by boat or lorry. “It has happened to me so many times. They treat us like animals, not humans. In Sudan there is war, people are killed, women are raped. But in some ways, it is better than here.”
Nasser, an Afghan refugee who turned 18 in December, said the constant evictions had affected his mental health. “The police keep coming,” he said. “You would think maybe if it rains they would not come, but they do. They even came on New Year’s when everyone was happy and it was a holiday. They take our stuff and we have to be outside for many hours – sometimes 10 to 12 hours. They don’t care if I’m a minor.”
Most evictions are carried out using “flagrance”, a measure which allows police to remove occupants of private land if there has been a complaint and they have been there for less than 48 hours. Some lead to arrests and deportations, but often refugees flee and later return. Lawyers say the evictions are harassment and a breach of UN and French human rights law, with the emergency measure – intended for gathering facts about a crime – deployed “wrongly and permanently”.
“It is a complete abuse of the system,” said Margot Sifre, who specializes in evictions for legal support charity Cabane Juridique. “Under normal circumstances, an eviction requires the authorization of a judge, a social diagnosis to identify vulnerable people, and preparation to provide rehousing solutions. But under flagrance, which should be a short-term measure, there is no legal basis and no opportunity to appeal.”
Bastien Roland, a lawyer working in Calais, said the tactics were “deliberately vague and difficult to contest”. He added, “The government spends millions of euros to slow these refugees down. They will still try to cross to England, but with how many traumas?”
Larger-scale evictions, described as “sheltering” operations, involving the dispersal of refugees to centers around the country, are carried out by French authorities through court orders. On September 29, nearly 800 people were evicted in an area known as Hospital, one of 15 such operations last year.
After the destruction of the Calais “Jungle” camp in 2016 and another large makeshift camp last September, the evictions are seen by the French authorities as a key weapon in preventing similar “fixing points” being established by the estimated 1,200 refugees now in Calais and Dunkirk, which include pregnant women and children.
Humanitarian groups working in northern France say that in recent months conditions have worsened and that the evictions have become relentless.
About 150 people now sleep under bridges in Calais city center, where charities are banned from distributing food, but on December 24 an order for eviction was granted by the administrative court of Lille, which is expected to take place imminently.
“I don’t know what I will do if they evict us,” said Mohammed, a 17-year-old Algerian currently sleeping under the Mollien Bridge. “Their strategy is to weaken us. But if everything was fine in our countries, we wouldn’t have left. We don’t have the choice.”
The prefecture of Pas-de-Calais said in a statement that the evictions “put an end to illegal occupations … with a twofold objective: To prevent the reconstitution of insalubrious camps and to provide shelter for the migrant population”. It added, “The action of the police during these operations responds to strict rules of ethics.”