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Daily harrassment of human rights organisations in Calais and Dunkirk

Over the years, countless individuals have lost their lives attempting to cross the Channel to go to the UK. Known deaths are collected and shared publicly by Calais Migrants Solidarity. Sadly, the true extent of this humanitarian crisis remains unknown, with hundreds losing their lives and countless others vanishing without a trace.

With little to no adequate solution made available to them, individuals are forced to reside in open spaces, both in Calais and Dunkirk, for prolonged durations. It is not uncommon for them to spend weeks, months, and even years without a roof over their heads or access to basic services. During their stay, they face constant violations of their human rights. Aside from regular evictions and police violence, inhumane and degrading treatment is the norm as they lack access to food, water sanitation and medical care. Moreover, they are left completely in the dark about their rights and possibilities to access asylum procedures.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of the situation and the difficulties faced by individuals in Calais and Dunkirk, we conducted interviews with three organisations that are closely involved in providing services and protecting human rights in these areas. The organisations we spoke to are: ECPAT France, Utopia56, and Channel Info Project.

These organisations have extensive experience and work on a daily basis to support those in need. We have had previous contact with these organisations during our own volunteering activities, which have involved providing medical assistance and distributing food, among other things.

During our conversations with them, we discovered that they are facing significant challenges, particularly due to ongoing harassment by the local authorities, including the police. This harassment severely restricts their ability to offer essential support and services to the individuals, including children, who are living in these areas.

The stories shared by these organizations left us deeply shocked. The level of harassment they face goes beyond what one can imagine. In the following section, we provide a brief summary of the interviews, outline the challenges they encounter, and discuss potential responses to address these issues.

So, what’s really happening to people in the north of France?

People arrive in Dunkirk and Calais to cross the channel. Motivations are varied: the majority look for asylum in the UK due to complex personal and administrative situations, making them unable to ask for asylum in the country of their choice in the EU as they fall under the Dublin regulations (which requires the first country of arrival to process the asylum application). Others simply aim to join their families or seek a better life following the « British dream ».

Obtaining a visa to the EU is extremely difficult. EU countries do not offer alternative options for most people coming from countries outside of the EU, not least from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, just to name a few. Absent safe pathways, travelling through multiple countries often in dangerous circumstances, becomes the only option, with people often finding themselves stranded in Dunkirk and Calais.

Depending on their personal circumstances, they may arrive alone or with their family. They may stay for several days or months in extremely difficult physical and mental conditions. Like any other person, refugees require access to some basic services (accommodation, medical, social, water, food, etc.) to survive. However, the unfortunate reality is that those surviving on informal living sites in Northern France find themselves lacking in all of these essential services.

During our discussions, one crucial issue that emerged, and which illustrates well the issues faced at the border, was the severe lack of access to water in both locations. This chronic issue, which has already been brought to the attention of the court (TA Lille, ordonnance référé liberté 31 Juy 2018 n°1806567) by field organisations. This concern forms an integral part of their collective advocacy efforts aimed at exerting pressure on local authorities to ensure water availability in these areas and in all its forms (water, sanitation and hygiene).

All organisations emphasized that basic services are barely provided by the local authorities and in those limited cases where they have been made available it is only after non-mandated organisations (i.e. organisations not directly appointed by public services as state service providers) resorted to legal recourse demanding the authorities to uphold their obligations. Once in place, the services are never sufficient nor adapted to the reality of the people surviving in the camps.

In the limited cases where basic services are provided by local State authorities, discriminatory treatment during service delivery is glaringly evident. During our conversation with the representative from Utopia 56, an incident highlighting this stark discrimination was brought to light: a young pregnant woman close to her due date arrived at the local hospital in Dunkirk, where the hospital management refused to provide translation services. Translation was also refused in the case of a young boy who, following a shipwreck, was left alone in the hospital for hours without any assistance. The hospital management often justify their refusal by citing limited capacity, as they struggle to accommodate the allegedly large number of refugees seeking medical attention.

This inaction on the part of local authorities means that organisations operating in Calais and Dunkirk, such as the Red Cross, Médecins du Monde, Utopia 56 and others, step in to provide essential services such as food, clothing, first aid, and tents. Utopia 56 also provides transportation to facilitate access to basic services offered by the local authorities, such as shelters and hospital care. These organizations play a vital role in filling the gaps left by inadequate support from the authorities.

In both Calais and Dunkirk, regular evictions of refugees are conducted by local police. In Calais, evictions are organized on a daily basis without offering any accommodation or stable solutions. The mechanisms put in place for the recovery of personal items lost during evictions are complex and ever-changing, meaning that in the majority of cases, the belongings are rarely returned. In Dunkirk, the frequency of evictions has increased recently, in spite of the fact that all refugees have been relocated to a more secured location where they were assured they could remain. These evictions create a precarious situation for those residing in these places, particularly affecting those who arrive with their underage children.

How is the relationship of organisations with local authorities?

Organisations actively seek to work with and collaborate with the local authorities. In Calais, they even meet with the head local authority on a regular basis. However, we were informed by them that, far from being a genuine space for discussion, the outcomes of these meetings are very limited. In fact, local and regional authorities have stopped communication with some of the interviewed organisations, acting upon direct instructions from management. This lack of collaboration has resulted in further limitation on the provision of basic services for refugees, completely disregarding their needs and the challenges they face.

In our interviews, colleagues emphasised that public authorities intentionally avoid cooperating with them, fearing that it would highlight the pressing need for substantial improvements in the quality of local services. This blatant and alarming disregard for the needs of the individuals residing in Dunkirk and Calais sends a clear message of neglect.

Moreover, all the interviewed organisations encounter discriminatory treatment and harassment from local authorities and the police. These instances include unwarranted transport fines, such as receiving parking tickets for vehicles parked on non-registered roads. Additionally, the organisations have faced evictions and disruptions in the sites where they operate, with authorities plowing the soil to make the space unliveable for people.

Authorities also stop all efforts made by people to resettle in the evacuated areas: prohibiting tents and forcing people to walk through and reside in muddy places, making it difficult to keep their living spaces clean.

All organisations consider that the treatment they receive from local authorities is carried out in an effort to block their activities and push away refugees from these areas as much as possible. Authorities have been far from successful in their attempted deterrence, with organisations continuing to actively work in the areas and the number of arrivals has not significantly changed in the last years.

Is denial of rights leading to a reduced number of refugees coming?

By intentionally denying access to essential services, public authorities aim to reduce the number of individuals residing in these areas. In fact, this is a clear policy of “combatting fixation points'' introduced in 2016 during the dismantling of the Calais « Jungle ». The policy aims to prevent concentration in one single space by systematically destroying living spaces. In practice, dispersing, invisibilising - all in the wider objective of deterring individuals from coming to the border.

However, it raises the question: does this approach truly discourage people from attempting to cross the channel? Has the number of refugees actually decreased in recent years?

According to the respondents, the number of arrivals to Calais and Dunkirk have not decreased, but rather stabilised. Due to the lack of regular data collection regarding arrivals and the prolonged stays of some refugees in these sites, precise figures are unavailable. At the same time, the Home Office in the UK reports that the number of arrivals to the UK is continuously increasing. As a general observation, it is clear that refugees will continue to arrive in Dunkirk and Calais, determined to pursue their goal of crossing the channel. The substandard quality of services provided has only resulted in increasing the number of individuals suffering, rather than having any deterrent effect.

How do organisations work together?

In both sites, there is a regular coordination mechanism for organisations to work together. The Calais platform is more institutionalised (older) than that in Dunkirk, making collaborative work easier for the time being.

Organisations meet regularly to discuss recent challenges and plan joint activities (e.g. access to shelters, safe routes to the UK). One outcome of this cooperation is the ‘Arrival Guide’ that people receive upon arrival at either site and which outlines available services such as food, clothing, and medical aid. However, it is important to note that certain services may not always be available due to limited-service provider capacities.

Some organisations may be mandated by the national or local authorities to provide services and/or may receive some public financing to provide these services. The activities of other organisations who do not benefit from public funding are more independent.

The varying levels of independence has an impact on the cooperation between these organisations. Organisations which receive financial support from public authorities cannot freely participate in advocacy work towards local and regional authorities. At the same time, there is good cooperation established with charity organisations based in the UK who assist in addressing critical cases such as, for instance, unaccompanied minors. Some British organisations are also present on the camps to deliver services directly. Some joint projects have also been developed through this collaboration.

How are organisations doing their advocacy?

In order to provide better services for refugees, the interviewees advocate for better services provided by local authorities. It is important to note that regular dialogues are organised by state authorities (‘prefecture’) which serve as an information sharing platform rather than a genuine space for constructive dialogue. Furthermore, these meetings are often violent to some organisations that are accused of providing emergency and humanitarian assistance to so-called ‘irregular migrants’ attempting to cross the channel. At the same time, local authorities refuse to improve the quality of services in these sites without receiving a judicial order.

This raises an important question for all involved organisations: should they mobilise more resources to provide services themselves or exert greater political pressure on local authorities?

Unfortunately, this debate remains unresolved primarily due to the resistance of local authorities. Consequently, services are primarily provided in parallel to existing local services, resulting in an unsustainable and discriminatory model.

Another evident question arises: what would be the optimal solution for refugees?

The most common response is to provide free and safe pathways to the UK. When considering the costs associated with control, police operations, evictions, and the provision of certain local services, it is likely more cost-effective to offer safe passage for refugees. What ‘safe passage’ should mean is still under discussion among organisations. However, without political support, this solution remains elusive, and instead, an increasing amount of financial resources is allocated to bolster security measures (as evident in the financial support from the UK to France. In fact,organisations have recently observed reinforced border surveillance (facilitated for instance by drones) which block the passage through the channel.

Organisations focused on child protection have formed a coalition for advocacy actions, in particular to protect unaccompanied children and to ensure services for them. However, at the EU level, there is a lack of advocacy actions, largely due to limited capacity and experience. The absence of EU advocacy is a crucial concern, considering that EU migration policies increasingly prioritise security and border control (as seen in the Pact on Migration) rather than ensuring essential services for those in critical need in Dunkirk and Calais.

Our take-aways

Based on the insights gained from these interviews, it is evident that we must persist in our exploration of the situation. To gain a deeper understanding and amplify the voices of those directly affected, it is crucial to conduct the next round of interviews with refugees from Dunkirk and Calais. By sharing their personal stories and experiences, we can shed light on the harsh realities they face and advocate for meaningful change.

It is also essential that stronger political pressure is exerted on local authorities to ensure, at the very least, access to basic services for refugees. It is our responsibility to advocate relentlessly for the rights and well-being of those living in these sites.

Certainly, refugees need safe and regular passage to the UK. The harassment and discriminative treatment of human rights organisations should also be immediately stopped.

Want to find out more?

In February 2023, the Crossborder Forum released English translations of two important reports of the Platform for Support to Migrants (PSM) by Pierre Bonnevalle and Marta Lotto, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Touquet Agreements between the UK and France. These reports shed light on the border crisis resulting from successive bilateral agreements. They reveal the troubling connections between hostile immigration policies on both sides of the Channel. The reports thoroughly investigate and expose the harassment, surveillance, and violence faced by people on the move at this border. The UK Government funds these actions through bilateral agreements, purportedly to prevent people from reaching the UK. You can find the reports here:


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