French police accused of ‘stealing phones and shoes of refugees to stop them leaving Calais Jungle’

Exclusive: Outraged MEP describes actions as ‘inhuman’, while refugees say they’ve been threatened with force if they fail to obey orders

May Bulman
Sunday 19 March 2017 20:57 GMT
French policing of migrants in Calais has been described as ‘inhuman’
French policing of migrants in Calais has been described as ‘inhuman’ (Getty)

French police have been stripping refugees and migrants of their shoes and forcing them to walk in bare feet to deter them from venturing outside the Calais Jungle, The Independent has learned.

Refugees failing to comply with officers’ demands have then felt they were being threatened by police officers with force, it has been alleged.

The claims, which also include allegations that police have been “confiscating” mobile phones, appear to be the latest form of humiliation and intimidation by law enforcement officials in Calais – after previous accusations of brutality.

Labour MEP Claude Moraes, who chairs the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee described the allegations as “deeply disturbing”, while one UK barrister who wants an official inquiry said they suggested “grievous violations of international human rights in relation to use of police force”.

Observers fear migrants will face further violence when French authorities begin to dismantle the camp, a process that is set to begin within the next fortnight.

The allegations of the confiscations surfaced after The Independent obtained a recorded testimony in which a male migrant describes being “forced” by police to remove and hand over his shoes.

In an audio clip, provided to The Independent by a leading Jungle volunteer, the Eritrean man, who asked not to be named, describes how he and six others were approached by police and threatened with force if they did not comply with orders.

He said: “They took shoes off seven of us when we were in the port. They said go to the Jungle. They forced us, we said ‘no, no, why are you taking our shoes?’ But when they came near us, we thought they were going to kick us.

“I don’t know why they did it. It took me one and a half hours to walk to the Jungle bare foot. Shoes are important here. How can you go without shoes? My friend has given me some – some people in the camp have extra. But if I didn’t have friends here I’d be walking around the jungle for two or three days without shoes.”

Charity leaders have since told The Independent thefts from refugees and migrants are regularly carried out by French police as a “form of intimidation that doesn’t leave scars”.

A spokesperson for the General Directorate of the National Police in France said the confiscations were not an official policy adopted by officers and claimed they were unaware of the allegations.

Rowan Farrell, who runs charity Refugee Info Bus and provided The Independent with the audio testimony, said: “Police are taking decent footwear from refugees. It’s happening a couple of times a week, for sure. It’s another part of a continuing trend of harassment in different ways by the police.

“Day-to-day in the camp people will often be wearing sandals and will keep the good solid shoes for if they’re leaving. It is one of the most vital things a refugee can have – good footwear. The police know shoes are such a valuable commodity for a refugee. That and a mobile phone.

“It is by no means the worst thing that happens to refugees at night in Calais. I guess it’s a form of intimidation that doesn’t leave scars but would put people off going.”

Clare Mosely, founder of Care4Calais, said the allegations were worrying at a time when the shortage of footwear, according to her, is the “most urgent” concern in the camp.

Ms Mosely said: “The shortage of shoes is my biggest concern right now. We are very worried about that for the winter. Sometimes the police smash phones as well. It’s a form of bullying.”

A report published in July by the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC), an organisation of barristers dedicated to human rights, recorded a range of allegations of police violence taking place in and around the camp, including the confiscation of refugees’ belongings.

Grainne Mellon, co-author of the BHRC report and barrister at Garden Court Chambers, told The Independent: “We found evidence of what appeared to be fairly routine acts of violence in the camp, including shoes being removed and phones being confiscated, corroborated by a number of different sources.

“The confiscation of these items is a breach of criminal law and against all policing codes and ethics, but in addition to that and more worryingly it feeds into this sense in the camps that the residents don’t have any rights.”

The report provoked calls to the French government to organise an independent investigation into allegations of police abuse and neglect of power within the Calais camps.

BHCR made the calls along with international organisation Human Rights Watch, but Ms Mellon said the French government has so far offered no response.

She added: “The camps themselves are a complete legal aberration. They’re not official refugee camps administrated by anyone, so those standards of accountability don’t apply, but international human rights law provision provides for everyone in the camp, and we did find there to be quite grievous violations in relation to use of police force against the residents of the camp.

“The police are representatives of the state and they have to abide by both French domestic criminal law and also by international standards, and what we see in the camp is an absence of accountability, because of the way that they’re run.

“It’s particularly bad for the children in the camp who are unlikely to seek any protection from the police officers who have created an environment in which 61 per cent of children don’t feel safe in the camp.”

Labour MEP Claude Moraes told The Independent: “On a basic human and human rights level, for the police to be confiscating shoes and phones – in terms of basic communication and basic clothing when winter is coming – is inhuman. It’s an inhuman action.

“This escalation is systematic of inability of both the UK and the French to bring a decent, compassionate and organised human settlement to the Calais situation. This is default not just of the French but of the British as well, and the UK has a legal and moral responsibility here.

“These confiscations are happening in the context of the UK refusing to take in unaccompanied children, which is exacerbating the problem. The vulnerability of children while this kind of thing is going on as winter approaches is deeply disturbing.”

The demolition of the Jungle is expected to begin next week and charity leaders on the ground believe the operation will see a rise in police brutality against refugees, after officers forcibly evicted hundreds of camp residents in February using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

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