Civil society organisations are alarmed over French authorities continued evictions of migrants from their tents and  other belongings despite the freezing temperatures in Calais. Journalists are effectively prevented from covering the evacuations and dismantling of the camps, and accuse the French authorities of “obstructing the freedom of press”. Foreign residents in France have denounced the COVID-related ‘visa freeze’ that prevents them from being joined by their families.

According to figures from Human Rights Observers (HRO), a non-profit that monitors police evictions in northern France, 973 evictions took place in Calais in 2020. In December alone, 526 tents were seized, and 41 arrests were made. These evictions have contributed to pushing hundreds of migrants into the streets without any shelter, while weather conditions have become very harsh. “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.”

Aid associations are trying to provide the migrants with the material that they need to protect themselves from the cold, the rain and the wind, but reports indicate that many migrants have fallen ill. The associations accuse the authorities of ignoring responsibilities and harassing migrants through the constant evictions. Since the summer of 2018 people have seen their tents destroyed and their belongings seized by police using excessive force, and on some occasions, making random arrests. With temperatures dropping significantly, the associations call upon the ‘prefectures’ of Nord and Pas-de-Calais to initiate the ‘Great Cold’-system (“Dispositif Grand Froid”) and protect the migrants from the harsh weather. Not activating this system is deliberate, says François Guennoc, vice-president of the association L’Auberge des migrants, because “letting people out is part of the policy of discouraging them from moving here”. On 4 January a shelter for minors was opened in Calais, which can house around 50 minors. Pierre Roques, coordinator of the Utopia 56 association in Calais, recognizes the need for such shelters but underlines the logistical problems. According to Roques, after 10 p.m. minors have to be transferred to the shelters by the police, who they accuse of harassment and violence. Further, he notes the lack of sufficient capacity: “There are about fifty places while, in Calais alone, there are at least 150 unaccompanied minors. The same thing happens in Grande-Synthe”.

Journalists are denouncing the restrictions that they face when reporting on the Calais evictions. Last weekend, the journalists’ Trade Union SNJ-CGT highlighted the situation of a team from the news website ‘Le Média’ that was covering the evacuations and dismantling of exile camps in Calais, and were denied the access to a vacant lot where the operation of the gendarmerie was ongoing. SNJ-CGT regretted the situation, underlining that this was not an isolated case and wondering: “how to report on the evacuations and provide information on the context, if the gendarmerie denies journalists the right to observe, tell, photograph and film the events?”. A complaint by two journalists before the Administrative Court in Lille, in early January urging the prefectures of Nord and Pas-de-Calais to allow them to access the various sites where camp evacuations are carried out was rejected by an interim relief judge. The judge specified that the journalists had failed to prove any urgency in their application, even though the applicants had documented several occasions on which the police banned them from filming and taking photos despite having valid press cards.

In March 2020, France blocked certain visa application procedures in areas where the virus was considered to be active. Subsequently, since the summer, some applications have been resumed for specific categories, such as spouses and children of French nationals, students, teachers and certain foreign employees, including seasonal workers. Nonetheless, applications submitted by families of foreign nationals legally residing in France remain blocked by the authorities, which is considered to be discriminatory. Consequently, on December 16 2020, nine associations referred a case to the Conseil d’État (Council of State): “This decision (…) disproportionately infringes several fundamental rights in particular, the right to asylum, the right to live with one’s family and the right to respect for the best interests of the child,” the associations said in a press release, denouncing the “wall of embassies and consulates”.

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Photo: Radek Homola on Unsplash

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.