French authorities “routinely” pepper spray asylum seekers in Calais, even while they are asleep, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. It says that officers also use the spray on migrants’ food, and deploy batons against minors.
“Police in Calais, particularly the riot police, routinely use pepper spray on child and adult migrants in circumstances in which they pose no threat,” says the 40-page ‘Like Living in Hell’report, which was released on Tuesday.
The report is based on interviews of some 60 asylum seekers and other migrants who live around the port of Calais and nearby Dunkirk, as well as the interviews of dozens of aid workers.
HRW suggests that such behavior by police is partially driven by “a desire to keep down migrant numbers.”
According to the organization, police “regularly spray or confiscate” migrants’ sleeping bags, blankets, and clothing, and sometimes pepper spray their food and water.
One Afghan man by the name of Nasim Z. told HRW that police intentionally pepper sprayed his food to leave him hungry.
“Such police conduct in and around Calais is an abuse of power, violating the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment as well as an unjustifiable interference with the migrants’ rights to food and water,” the report states.
Police typically deploy pepper spray against migrants without any warning, according to the report.
“Every day, the police chase us. They use spray. They kick us. This is our life every day,” Waysira L., a 16-year-old from the Oromo community in east Africa said.
“It was daytime, and they came in a van. They sprayed us from the van. They didn’t say anything; they just sprayed,” Biniam T., a 17-year-old from Ethiopia recalled.
HRW said its personnel witnessed children with “bandages under their eyes” after being pepper sprayed, during visits to food distribution centers in June.
“…[A] police officer came up to me and sprayed me in the eyes. The spray also went into my nose,” Saare Y., a 16-year-old from Eritrea, said.
Officers also deploy batons and kick migrants when ordering them to leave food distribution areas, according to the report.
“The police said, ‘no more food.’ One police came up to me and hit me with his baton. He didn’t swing it; it was like he didn’t want to be seen, so he hit me like he was punching. It hit me here, in the ribs. It hurt so much,” said Abel G., a 16-year-old from Eritrea.
On multiple occasions, riot police “forcibly blocked” access to aid workers and “knocked food out of the workers’ hands when they attempted to give food to migrants.”
Police seized aid workers’ devices when they tried to take photos of the violations, according to HRW.
“Aid workers have begun to photograph or film these acts by police, as they are allowed to do under French law. In response, they say police have at times seized their phones for short periods, deleting or examining the contents without permission,” the report states.
The report comes after the notorious Calais ‘Jungle’ camp was evacuated and shut down in October 2016, resulting in some 5,500 of its residents being sent to various housing facilities across France.
Meanwhile, Calais authorities have denied the information in the HRW report.
“These are allegations, individuals’ declarations, that are not based on fact. They are slanderous….” Vincent Berton, the deputy prefect for Calais, told the organization.
A total of 85,000 people applied for asylum in France in 2016, although that number does not include undocumented migrants, according to the Asylum Information Database. Most of the applications came from citizens of Sudan, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Albania.
Although French authorities dismantled the ‘Jungle’ camp nine months ago,
Calais still shows the effects of the closure. Some 400 to 600 migrants are believed to be scattered across the city, sleeping in the streets without any assistance or registration, according to estimates from aid agencies.
Many Calais residents have expressed strong opposition to the presence of migrants in the city, saying it is impossible to continue with their daily lives and accusing authorities of not doing enough.
The situation in Calais intensified earlier this month, when a mass brawl broke out in the city, between at least 100 migrants from Africa. Police responded by deploying tear gas.
On June 20, a driver died on the highway to Calais in an accident which was caused by a roadblock set up by migrants.