Michaël Neuman & Corinne Torre
Director of studies at Crash / Médecins sans Frontières, Michaël Neuman graduated in Contemporary History and International Relations (University Paris-I). He joined Médecins sans Frontières in 1999 and has worked both on the ground (Balkans, Sudan, Caucasus, West Africa) and in headquarters (New York, Paris as deputy director responsible for programmes). He has also carried out research on issues of immigration and geopolitics. He is co-editor of "Humanitarian negotiations Revealed, the MSF experience" (London: Hurst and Co, 2011). He is also the co-editor of "Saving lives and staying alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (London: Hurst and Co, 2016).
Head of Mission France, Médecins Sans Frontières
From 12th to 16th June 2017, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams visited Calais to provide medical care. While there, they witnessed the extent to which public authorities are tracking and harassing migrants and those who try to support them.
Several hundred Afghans, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Sudanese and Somalis are currently in Calais, waiting to make the perilous and uncertain journey to Great Britain. Initiatives by local and national charities, whose access to the site has been bitterly negotiated with Calais town hall and the prefecture of the Pas-de-Calais department, offer them some respite.
Most of the ‘officially tolerated’ assistance (i.e. food and clothes) is provided in a distribution area, almost entirely fenced off since 13th June, not far from the site of the ‘Jungle’ that was dismantled in October 2016. Only one round of distribution was until very recently permitted by the town hall each day. It started at 6pm, under heavy supervision by the security forces; the gendarmerie, which guards the site during the day to prevent any gatherings before 6pm; the riot police (CRS, Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité); the national police, the crime squad, and the border police (PAF, Police aux Frontières).
Assistance is offered by local and national groups working in the area (Utopia 56, l’Auberge des Migrants amongst others), British groups such as Refugee Youth Services and Refugee Community Kitchen, and individuals. Medical consultations run by Médecins du Monde and Gynécologie sans Frontières take place at the same time, while phone charging stations are set up by private citizens.
The sudden emergence of hundreds of people from the woods at distribution time makes for some surprising scenes. The migrants talk about being treated like animals. This feeling couldn’t be better illustrated than by the fenced distribution area, which resembles a cage, whose door is opened from time to time, ensuring that migrants don’t get too close and can’t escape.
Distribution lasts a little more than an hour and is clearly inadequate for providing food to all. A priest at St Joseph’s church allows Secours Catholique and Refugee Community Kitchen to prepare and provide a second meal, water and a place to rest to those who dare to venture into town. There is no tap to use for drinking and washing.
Beyond these two schemes – one authorised, the other just about tolerated – any attempt to provide assistance in the town is banned. Groups of migrants are dispersed by the police to prevent them from gathering and staying in one place (what the French authorities call ‘fixation points’); alongside any attempts to offer them additional help. Our team was present at one of the police’s attempts to prevent the distribution of sixty or so meals. The officer in charge of the operation, questioned by a member of our team, said ‘One meal a day isn’t enough, but I have my orders.’
The migrants, some of whom are still only teenagers, sleep in the forest, in the marshes, or on the sand. They are generally in good physical shape, but they are exhausted and suffering from skin diseases linked to the disastrous sanitary conditions, eye infections due to tear gas exposure, sprains, and flesh wounds. Sometimes the police come in the night to drive them away, spraying their clothes and sleeping bags with tear gas as they do so.
The extreme precariousness of their living conditions, combined with psychological fragility, addictions and personal tensions, sometimes result in violence. Early in the week of our visit, for example, two migrants were slightly injured when an altercation arose at the end of a distribution line. The police didn’t intervene: according to an officer at the scene, they are specifically ordered not to.
By the end of our visit, our observations echoed those of the French human rights Ombudsman (Défenseur des droits), who criticised ‘the inhuman living conditions suffered by exiles in Calais’ in a press release issued on 14th June 2017. While institutional practices of hostility have become commonplace in recent years, rarely have the authorities seemed so determined to subject migrants to harassment.
Within this context, we would like to express our solidarity not only with the migrants, but also with local associations and individuals trying to offer much needed assistance. We also call on the authorities to respond positively to the recommendations made by the human rights Ombudsman, and we support the emergency legal appeal (the ‘référé liberté’ procedure) brought before the Administrative Court by charities on 15th June, aimed at forcing the State to provide the necessary services. Unfortunately, it seems that the French public authorities are only capable of acting when put under pressure by the public and the law.
On 16th June, one day after the emergency legal appeal by charities and the same day this piece was first published in Le Monde, the state police informed local aid groups that distributions would from now on be authorised all day, until 8:00pm, on the predefined distribution site. Nonetheless, the pressure on migrants remained high, as both local and national authorities showed no tolerance for permanent settlements or distribution of aid on any other sites. Distributions continue to be interrupted by the police.
On June 26, 2017 the administrative court, while ruling against creating a new centre for migrants, stated that migrants should have access to food, water, showers and toilets. Within an hour of the ruling, Calais mayor Natacha Bouchart declared that she would appeal. Arguing that the decision was unacceptable to her, she stated that she would not comply with the ruling. She justified her decision by saying that ‘solutions exist outside of the Calais region’. Six to seven hundred migrants are currently in Calais, almost three hundred are sleeping in the bushes in the neighbouring town of Grande-Synthe, and several hundred more can be found on the streets of Paris and Saint-Denis. No doubt more migrants will arrive in France in the coming months; for some of them, their only plan will be to get to Great Britain. Dispersing them and making them invisible through violence, on the one hand, and hindering solidarity efforts, on the other, should not and must not be the defining features of the French state’s reception policy.
Note: The authors would like to thank Benjamin Thomas White for the editorial assistance he so generously provided for this English version.