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Migrants describe police brutality in French city of Calais

Philippe Huguen, AFP | Migrants lie on mattresses placed on the floor of a warehouse in Calais, northern France, on December 27, 2014
Philippe Huguen, AFP | Migrants lie on mattresses placed on the floor of a warehouse in Calais, northern France, on December 27, 2014

UK-bound migrants and asylum seekers in the northern French port city of Calais have told a prominent rights group that they are routinely beaten and pepper-sprayed by police, allegations law enforcement officials in France categorically deny.


Migrants, many of whom have travelled from as far as Ethiopia and Afghanistan with the dream of reaching British shores, said police beat them with truncheons when they were caught trying to board UK-bound trucks, but also while walking in the streets of Calais, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“The migrants and asylum seekers described what appear to be routine abuses by police officers,” HRW said in its report, also drawing attention to the inadequate living conditions of some 2,300 migrants in the Calais area.

HRW's allegations were confirmed by French volunteers who offer assistance to the destitute refugees. “Police violence in Calais is a fact, there is no doubt about it,” Catherine Konforti, a volunteer with the Auberge des Migrants aid group, told FRANCE 24 by telephone.

Konforti said she had accompanied migrants in need of medical attention to local hospitals around 10 times in the past three months. However, she said she had never witnessed police abuse against migrants personally.

“Migrants talk to us about it all the time,” Konforti said about police violence. “They have no problem talking about it. Sometimes they fall off a truck, and they tell us, but other times it’s because they were beaten by police.”

Like insects

One 25-year-old migrant from Eritrea, identified as Rosa, told HRW that police put her in the emergency room after finding her on a truck. “I said, ‘Please help me,’ but they beat me and I collapsed outside the truck. They kicked me on the ground,” the rights group quoted her as saying.

Ahmed Ibrahim, a 17-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker, told HRW that two policemen had kicked him as he emerged from an empty car, where he and three men had been sheltering from the rain. 

Claims of police brutality in Calais are not new, with migrants even organising demonstrations to denounce abuse at the hands of law enforcement officials.

Khaled, from Sudan, told FRANCE 24 in September that being captured by police usually meant a dose of pepper spray or a few blows from a truncheon.

Pepper spray, which is supposed to only be used to deter large groups from climbing onto trucks, is employed by police in different situations, according to migrants. “They spray you like you’re an insect. It’s happened to all of us in the street,” a man identified as Mohammad told HRW.

Injuries by ‘other migrants’

French authorities interviewed by HRW denied any knowledge of routine police brutality or unjustified use of force.

Reacting to the HRW report, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that he regretted that the group had not verified the allegations with proper police authorities, even though the shocking document cited meetings with the minister’s advisor in December and with the prefect of the Pas-de-Calais department, Denis Robin, in January.

“Denis Robin told Human Rights Watch that while there were injured migrants in Calais, their injuries were sustained during attempts to cross over to the UK or inflicted by other migrants. He denied that any were due to excessive and unjustified use of force by police,” the report said.

Government ‘ignoring’ situation

Calais volunteer Konforti confirmed there were occasional fights between migrant groups, often pitting one nationality against another, but she said they were extremely rare.

“There were three fights in all since this summer,” Konforti told FRANCE 24. “I was surprised how quickly they were able to settle things. These are not violent people. Most of them remain to themselves and a small group of friends.”

“It’s scandalous that the French government has ignored the problem of police violence in Calais,” Konforti insisted. “Maybe the new report will change that.”

To see the report by Human Rights Watch click here.

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