One of the most pressing (and lesser-reported) issues faced by asylum seekers in Calais and Dunkirk is the complete disconnect between French authorities and asylum seekers themselves. Not only are asylum seekers denied legal advice or the practical ability to exercise their rights to family reunion, they are victims of police brutality on an almost daily basis.
It is not surprising that media reports focus on the appalling conditions in the Calais and Dunkirk camps. On a recent trip Lord Roberts’ team saw for themselves how men, women and children live in knee-high mud, and brave the winter weather with little more than flimsy tents to keep the wind and rain at bay. In response to accusations that the British government are neglecting their humanitarian responsibilities, the Prime Minister champions the fact that under the Dublin Regulations, the UK has to allow family members of British people to claim asylum in the UK.
The obligations of the Dublin Regulations have been entrenched in British law, namely, Immigration Rules: Part 8 (HC 395). However, the reality is that virtually no one can access this legal route. Many asylum seekers do not fully understand the unnecessarily complex system, and are unaware of exactly what their rights are; there are even reports of British passport holders unable to enter the UK from the camps. Applying for asylum from outside the UK relies on accessing a myriad of confusing forms via the internet (which is inaccessible for most) as well as access to the UK VISA Application Centre in Paris. Despite government claims that British officials are present in the camp, these visits are occasional at best and offer no means of beginning an asylum claim. So although many asylum seekers in Calais and Dunkirk (as well as across Europe) have a legitimate legal right to claim asylum in the UK, it is incredibly difficult to access in practice.
Not only are the British and French government preventing effective access to legal advice and procedures (there are no government run legal centres in either camp), they are also forcing asylum seekers to live in unsafe, unsanitary and punishing conditions. Life in the ‘Jungle’ is arguably more bearable than life in the rapidly expanding camp in Dunkirk, because since the summer communities have built a theatre, library, and numerous churches, mosques and shops. The majority of people in Calais live in solid structures provided by numerous grassroots groups, such as Help Refugees (who spend around £80,000 per month on building materials). Meanwhile in Grande-Synthe, French police prevent even the most basic of building materials from entering the camp because the mayor does not want the camp to expand. Thus, people are denied the opportunity to improve their living conditions, and are forced to live in knee-high mud with few hygiene facilities (many of which are often broken). There are numerous NGOs such as the French Red Cross and UNHCR which specialise in crisis management. These organisations could drastically improve living conditions in the camps at no cost to the government, but French authorities refuse in the vain hope of deterring other migrants from coming to Dunkirk.
Last week a mosque and church in the ‘Jungle’ was demolished under the supervision of French police. A few days earlier authorities had reassured community leaders in the camp that these places of worship would remain protected from bulldozing. This promise was not upheld. French riot police (who have become a constant feature of life in camp) kept distraught crowds back as bulldozers tore down sacred places of worship. The church’s pastor stood by in peacefully protest, and salvaged two holy crosses from the wreckage. Within hours the demolition was complete and the boundary of the camp had been pushed back.
Rumours are circulating in the camp that authorities plan to raze the entire camp by the end of March. In the only gesture which demonstrates some form of acknowledgement of the situation in Calais, authorities have nearly finished building suitable accommodation to replace the camp. However, even this apparently sincere gesture is double-edged; the new facilities will house 1,500 migrants, whilst the ‘Jungle’ currently contains around 6,000. The authorities do not appear to have considered that once the camp is destroyed, there will be over 4,500 displaced asylum seekers. What will they do? Another makeshift camp will almost certainly be built. Perhaps somewhere else on the coast – but it will be another camp nonetheless. Until the French government recognise the extent of the problem, the situation will only worsen.
Of course, dealing with the humanitarian crisis across the Channel is not the sole responsibility of French. As one French grassroots volunteer pointedly asked me: “Where are the British in all this?” Although the Anglo-French agreement signed in August 2015 aimed to prioritise humanitarian concerns, the government have since admitted that “the management of the camp – both in terms of humanitarian aspects and maintaining law and order – is the responsibility of the French Government”. The British government have effectively washed their hands with the humanitarian crisis, and hidden behind the Dublin Regulations which state that refugees must claim asylum in the first safe country they reach (which is usually Greece, Italy or Turkey). The reality is though, many people in the camps on the French coast (and, indeed, across Europe) want to come to the UK; this makes it, unequivocally, a British concern.
In addition to the poor living conditions in the camps, there are numerous accounts of police brutally beating, gassing and intimidating peaceful asylum seekers without provocation. Reports of police using tear gas against areas of the camp used by children are particularly disturbing. Tear gas is banned during warfare through the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 and the Geneva Conventions. However, use of tear gas can be lawful if used for riot control. Alarmingly though, unprovoked attacks are becoming an almost nightly occurrence (see here). This is treatment you’d perhaps expect to see in countries such as Syria or Libya – countries run by tyrannical dictators. This is not something you should expect to see in the country with the 6th largest economy in the world.
Walking around the camp you are never more than a few meters away from a discharged gas canister or rubber bullet casing, and French authorities make no secret of this. Not only are asylum seekers victims of police brutality, grassroots volunteers are also injured by the violence. Many French and British volunteers have respiratory and eyesight problems as a result of chemical weapons. There are also constant reports of police beating asylum seekers, and turning a blind eye to extreme fascist groups entering the camp to beat, and sometimes kill, refugees.
Perhaps equally disturbing is the fact that the international community has so far failed to address this. The British government has allowed this treatment to go unchecked. Whether or not the British government accept more refugees is a separate argument, but it is woefully clear that the UK is ignoring numerous obligations to intervene in the crisis under supranational law, including; the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – to name but a few.
It is not too late for the British government to intervene in the humanitarian crisis on the French coast. The UK possesses the political muscle to pressure French authorities. Both nations were able to work together swiftly and effectively to protect national interests by fortify the Channel Tunnel complex; there is no reason why the two governments cannot work equally as effectively to tackle the humanitarian emergency. Responsibility for preventing the prevalence of systematic violence, squalid living conditions and the non-existence of legal advice goes beyond moral obligation – it is a legal requirement. The UK’s response (or lack thereof) begs the question – what is the point of international treaties and agreements if they are brushed under the carpet when convenient?
As two of the richest and most powerful nations in Europe, the British and French governments do possess the economic capital and political weight to deal with this crisis. Both governments need to get their heads out of the sand, and work together to fulfil their legal and moral obligations.