Calais: The Neglected Humanitarian Crisis On The U.K.’s Doorstep

Calais, in Northern France, is a harsh illustration of the reality of the refugee crisis in Europe as it stands today. It was once recognized due to the presence of “The Jungle,” a refugee camp which sheltered around 10,000 refugees between 2015-2016. In October 2016, as a result of growing hostile policies and anti-refugee sentiment, the French government made the decision to completely demolish the Jungle. However, this only served to scatter the population of the camp. Today, there are an estimated 1,500 displaced people living in the areas of Calais and Dunkirk, primarily in forests and industrial areas. The living conditions faced are abhorrent, comprising forced evictions and police brutality, alongside a lack of adequate shelter and sanitation.

As such, the crisis in Calais continues to this day and will continue on for as long as there is a lack of legal routes to reach the U.K. for the purposes of applying for asylum. It is therefore imperative that the U.K. steps up and introduces reform to its asylum policy. This should enable displaced persons to apply for asylum in the U.K. in a safe and dignified manner. Without such reform, asylum seekers will continue to be left with no choice but to undertake extremely dangerous journeys and be faced with sub-human living conditions in the makeshift camps of Calais.

Police Violence

The hostility of the environment for displaced people in Calais is evident through the brutality of the French police. A report released on the 23rd October 2017 by the French Administration and Security Forces internal investigations department produced evidence that police used excessive force against refugees in Calais. In response to this, Bénédicte Jeannerod, the French director of Human Rights Watch, stated: “The investigation requested by the Interior Ministry confirms that police in Calais used excessive force and otherwise abuse migrants, including children.” Furthermore, a report was published by Refugee Rights Europe in 2017 titled “Twelve Months On,” which established that 92% of refugees in Calais experienced police brutality at some stage.

This brutality often entails the use of chemical agents, coupled with physical violence. According to a report published by Refugee Info Bus, 244 acts of police violence were reported to volunteers between November 2017 and November 2018, with 153 of these acts including the use of a chemical agent. The manner in which the police employ these chemical agents often serves as little more than an abuse of power intended to degrade and humiliate. During a visit to Calais in October 2017, Refugee Rights Europe found that 90% of the refugees interviewed had been tear-gassed while in France. Among this number, 41.58% reported that they were subjected to it many times a week. These brutal acts of degradation and violence highlight the daily reality of the situation in Calais for displaced people.

Forced Evictions

Displaced people in Calais are continuously faced with forced evictions of their living spaces at the hands of the French police. Each site is evicted every 48 hours and the evictions are often accompanied by the confiscation of personal belongings such as tents, bedding and clothing. In a report published in 2019, the Human Rights Observers stated that they had documented at least 738 forced evictions between 8 August 2018 and 1 June 2019. These evictions are active violations of several human rights, including the right to adequate shelter and the right to freedom from degrading treatment. The forced evictions result in a living situation of total material vulnerability and uncertainty. These conditions are unacceptable and a huge disgrace on the part of the French state.

The Role of the U.K.

The inhumane response of the French state to refugees in Calais, characterized by prolific violence and forced evictions, is additionally supported by the British government. As a consequence of the 1991 Sangatte Protocol, the 2003 Le Touquet Treaty and other bilateral agreements, the U.K. has juxtaposed its border control to France. The brutal actions of the French police in Calais are therefore largely funded by the U.K. government, with Theresa May offering in 2018 to pay France 4.4 million pounds to continue policing the border. This hostile environment created in Calais has the aim of deterring displaced people from making asylum claims in the U.K. In reality, the effect is the opposite- the hostility of Calais serves as a push factor, further encouraging displaced persons to try and reach the U.K. in order to escape the living conditions in Northern France.

As a result, the actions of both the French state and the U.K. government in creating an incredibly hostile environment for refugees in Calais has proven to be counterproductive. Instead of continuing to be complicit in the suffering of displaced people at the hands of the French state, authorities must step up and address the situation. Firstly, steps should be taken to ensure that the rights of displaced people in Calais are upheld. There should be more efficient mechanisms in ensuring the accountability of police officers in Calais, to minimize the abuse and unjustified degradation directed towards refugees. Additionally, the French state should open adequate accommodation facilities in Calais, to ensure consistency with recommendations made by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing in 2019.

The Need for Safe, Legal Routes

The dire living conditions in Calais are exacerbated by the U.K.’s border control and asylum policies. In order to make an asylum claim, an asylum seeker must physically be in the U.K. However, there is currently no legal route from Europe to facilitate this. Not only does this mean that displaced people are forced to endure the conditions in Calais for a protracted period of time due to difficulty in reaching the U.K., but it means that asylum seekers have no option but to undertake dangerous and highly risky journeys. For example, according to the Euro Med Monitor, by the end of 2019 around 2,000 people had reached the shores of the U.K. by crossing the English Channel in inflatable dinghies and at least four individuals had died making the journey. The dangers this journey encompasses cannot be overstated- the channel is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and is often incredibly rough. However, lack of a legal alternative has left asylum seekers attempting to reach the U.K. from Calais with no option but to risk their lives in this way.

It is thus of the utmost importance that serious reforms are implemented. It is deeply inhumane to have an asylum system in place which forces asylum seekers to put their lives at serious risk, simply in an attempt to seek safety. The reality is that reaching the U.K. is the end goal for the majority of displaced people who reach Northern France. As such, due to the desperation and hostility of the conditions in Calais, these individuals are going to continue to try and reach the U.K. whether there is a safe means of doing so or not. Therefore, U.K. authorities and policymakers have a responsibility and a moral duty to take steps to prevent the needless loss of life and unnecessary suffering. The reality is that this will only continue to increase as individuals are continuously deprived of safe and legal means of claiming asylum. In order to achieve this, a legal route for displaced people to apply for asylum in the U.K. must be established.

The situation in Calais is a painful illustration of the reality of harsh border control and cruel policy. The suffering endured by those in search of safety has continued for far too long and serious systemic change must be implemented. Asylum is a human right and humanity has a collective duty to step up in solidarity with those forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution.

Lauryn Sinclair


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