French Police Using Violence Against Volunteers Who Help Refugees

Tom Ciotkowski, a British human rights defender, who documented the abuse by French police of migrants, refugees and volunteers in Calais, has been acquitted of charges today. Ciotkowski was facing up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 7,500 Euros after challenging French police for blocking volunteers from distributing food.  He had been charged with contempt and assault, but video footage had shown he was the one being assaulted.

report by Amnesty International has publicised that French police have been intimidating and violently assaulting those found to be offering assistance to immigrants in the north of France. It revealed that providing food to the hungry, and warmth to the homeless, have become unsafe for humanitarians since the authorities have been cracking down on those giving help. The attacks range from smearing attacks, such as being labelled as extremists and responsible for attracting migrants, to the obstruction of their humanitarian work, to arrests, and even physical assault.

It has been over two years since the demolition of the infamous “Jungle” camp, a shoddy enclave at Calais, which at one point housed around 10,000 refugees – a lot of whom arrived as stowaways. Now, all that remains are around 1,200 refugees and migrants, which include unaccompanied children, who have been living in makeshift tents and informal camps.  With no regular access to food, water, sanitation, shelter or legal assistance, they are routinely subject to evictions, harassment, and violence at the hands of the police.

Lisa Maracani, a researcher at Amnesty International on Human Rights Defenders, told me: “Since the Calais Jungle was dismantled in October 2016, the French authorities are implementing a policy of “no attachment points”, involving the routine forcible eviction of people who sleep rough or in temporary encampments in the area. This policy is implemented through the deployment of large numbers of police officers, transferred from elsewhere in France, working in stints of up to one month, and trained to deal with riots and crowd control, rather than with people in need. This has led to abuses by police on migrants and refugees, including violence and misuse of teargas spray. As local human rights defenders provide humanitarian aid to these destitute people, or as they observe police operation in the area, they also become targets of police abuse.”

In 2017, following numerous complaints, the national bodies in charge of monitoring the police, the Gendarmerie and the Public Administration (IGPN, IGA, IGGN) conducted an investigation, which led them to conclude that while there was no “formal evidence”, the sheer volume of verbal and written testimonies forced them to consider the “violations of the guidelines on the use of force and of policing ethical standards, particularly in Calais”.

“In May 2019, following a request for information, the Ministry of Justice admitted that very few migrants and refugees dare to file complaints, and then only when lawyers and local organizations support them. However, even when they do, the cases are dropped for lack of evidence as it is often their word against the word of a police officer,” Maracani explained.

“Until law enforcement officials are put under scrutiny and there is accountability for their actions, abuse will continue to take place. The judicial authorities need to send a strong signal that this behaviour will not be tolerated.”

Amnesty has spoken to several migrants and refugees sleeping rough in Calais, who have claimed to have been beaten by police; had their face or food sprayed with tear gas; and had their tents, blanker, and personal belongings confiscated.

“Until these reforms happen, the French authorities must take concrete measures to give a humane solution to the suffering of migrants and refugees in the area, including by providing emergency shelter to all those living on the streets, irrespective of their migratory status. It must also end the harassment and attacks against human rights defenders and establish a constructive dialogue with civil society actors who provide humanitarian aid,” Maracani added.

A new report from Human Rights Observers (HRO), which coincides with World Refugee Day today, discovered that between August 1, 2018, and June 1, 2019, there were at least 803 forced evictions of displaced people in Calais and Grande-Synthe.