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French police ‘tear-gassing refugee children and tearing up tents’ near former Calais Jungle site as government condemns abuses

Exclusive: New body of evidence shows refugees have been victim to ‘unprovoked and extreme’ violence and bullying by officers in region, including beatings and destruction of belongings

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 29 October 2017 09:41 GMT
Police brutality in Calais: Video appears to show police kicking a refugee's phone into the road

Refugees in northern France have have been subject to aggressive use of tear gas and repeated destruction of possessions at the hands of police in the region, whose conduct has been condemned by the French government following an independent inquiry.

A year on from the demolition of the notorious Calais Jungle, as the number of displaced people in the area creeps up to an estimated 2,000, a body of new evidence seen exclusively by The Independent indicates that officers are threatening to split up families, tearing up refugees’ tents and in some cases beating people with batons.

Other testimonies reveal refugees have been held for long periods of time in the local police station, with one family telling how they were detained for an entire day, during which time they were given no food or clean nappies for their young baby.

Police have also been seen confiscating and sometimes destroying refugees’ belongings, such as their phones or shoes. One video shows a male refugee on the ground with three police officers standing around him, one of whom appears to kick his mobile phone onto the road and knock it down a drain.

It comes in the same week the French government condemned the “abuse” of tear gas and the “destruction of migrants’ personal belongings” by police in the region after state investigators confirmed in a government-commissioned report that abuses were taking police.

The investigation, requested by the interior ministry in response to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in July, found that police routinely use chemical sprays on refugees, including children, while they were sleeping and in other circumstances where they posed no threat. Officers also regularly spray or confiscate sleeping bags, blankets, and clothing, apparently to press people to leave the area, investigators found.

The new evidence of police abuses, gathered by Humans for Rights Network, confirms these abuses, and also highlights cases where police have forced sleeping children out of their tents and threatened to split up families, as well as in one case reportedly beating a male refugee to the ground.

One Iraqi Kurdish woman told how one morning police came and opened the zip of the tent where her two- and four-year-old children were sleeping, ordering them to leave as soon as possible.

“There were a lot of police around, maybe 50 or 60. Some of them told me and my children to go by the lake where there were many other refugees,” she said.

“We went there and we were all sat down in the middle of a circle of police with linked hands to trap us inside. An interpreter with the police said there was a decision from the government that if we don’t go with them, they will separate families and send the husband to prison for two years. They said they would remove the children from their families. The families were very scared.”

In another case, three adults and an eight-month-old baby were hiding in the back of a lorry near Dunkirk overnight, before they were reported by the driver to police. Two officers opened the lorry doors and took the family to the police station, where they remained in a cell until around 5pm.

During this time, the report states that the father of the baby requested a glass of water for his wife, which arrived three hours later. When the baby soiled her clothes the family asked the police to allow them to change her and put the dirty nappy outside the room. The police laughed and allowed them out over an hour later, and they did not provide the baby any clean nappies or clothes.

The adults received a small portion of rice each and one bottle of water between them but there was no food or milk provided for the baby for the whole day. Once all family members had been interviewed individually, they were released with no resources to help them travel back to the informal camp where they had been sleeping in Dunkirk.

Separately, a 25-year-old woman in Calais told researchers she witnessed another woman of her age being sprayed with tear gas by police. “There were two policemen surrounding her. She turned away from the one in front and the one behind sprayed her in the face,” she said.

“They sprayed for a long time and then when she turned away the one in front of her sprayed her in the face also. After the second spray she fell over, when she got up they sprayed again. She ran for about 15 minutes but couldn’t see anything. She fell into a some water with all her clothes on and her phone in her pocket.

Refugee explains what it's like sleeping rough in Calais

“The police followed her and when they saw her in the lake they got in the car and drove away. She shouted for help and some Eritrean men helped her to get out.”

A 17-year-old girl, also living in Calais, said she had been sprayed with CS gas multiple times by police when discovered in lorries. She said she “became blind” the first time.

When describing the last time she was sprayed, she said: “My eyes, my throat and my nose were irritated. Still now my throat is a problem, the gas entered my stomach and I have problems with my stomach.”

One 35-year-old man, who wore a cast on his arm, told researchers that as he was walking to the food distribution point he was approached by police who beat him on the ground, leading to him breaking his arm.

“I fell down and they hit me on my arm. They then pushed my head into the ground. I was just coming to get food. They hit me two times on the arm. There were three police. They hit me with the big baton,” he said.

(Maddie Harris (Maddie Harris)

“After they told me to go, my head was in pain and I had no strength. Three of my friends came and helped me to go to hospital. I had an x-ray and they said my arm was broken.”

Maddie Harris, who led the research, told The Independent the violence was “constant”, with many refugees having been victim to “unprovoked extreme” violence by police multiple times during their time in Calais or Dunkirk.

“Officers, particularly the riot police (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, CRS) appear to have no issue subjecting vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, to repeated exposure to tear gas, beatings and repeated destruction and confiscation of possessions such as sleeping bags, blankets, phones and shoes,” she said.

“When giving testimony, most migrant and asylum seekers talk of multiple incidents where they have been the victim of unprovoked extreme violence at the hands of the police. One particular unaccompanied minor, when talking of an incident where he was beaten by the police, told me he had been gassed on three separate occasions in one day.

“I have personally witnessed numerous evictions and confiscations of possessions, unprovoked beatings, violent arrests and use of tear gas. I have also seen the physical results of these actions, from young boys walking in the rain with no shoes, to the physical scars on the faces of unaccompanied minors. The officers in question act with complete impunity and show no signs of adhering to their code of conduct.”

Responding to the French government’s condemnation of the police abuses, Michael Bochenek, senior counsel to the Children’s Rights Division of HRW, said it was “welcome” that the state had acknowledged and condemned the issue, but warned that as winter approaches the “pervasive policing” must urgently stop.

“The investigators received pretty consistent accounts the same as we and others documented, including things like tear-gassing kids in the face while they sleep, taking their sleeping bags,” he said.

“It’s welcome to get that official acknowledgement that this problem is going on, and that they looked at the full range of concerns that we had. Now, particularly as the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop, people will have serious humanitarian needs and this kind of pervasive policing we’ve been seeing that gives rise to abusive practices must stop.”

When confronted with the new allegations, the local authority for the Calais region did not respond to them directly, but referred to a previous statement stating that following the state-commissioned report the Minister of the Interior had ordered police chiefs in the region to remind officers of the regulations they must comply to, especially during dismantling operations of the unofficial camps.

“He wishes to renew his confidence in the police forces whose intervention is carried out in Calais and Dunkirk in a particularly difficult context,” the local authority said.

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