Groups allege systematic French police brutality against refugees

In a year, police committed 972 human rights violations, says a group of NGOs, as Al Jazeera documents similar abuse.

refugees violence
A refugee's skin is damaged after a chemical agent was allegedly fired in close proximity to his face [Courtesy: L'Auberge des Migrants, Refugee Info Bus, Utopia56 and Legal Shelter]

There have been nearly 1,000 human rights violations by French police towards refugees in Calais in the past year, according to a report released on Wednesday. 

Police Violence in Calais: Abusive and Illegal Practices by Law Enforcement officers, published by four humanitarian organisations – L’Auberge des Migrants, Refugee Info Bus, Utopia56 and Legal Shelter – says that 972 incidents were recorded over the space of a year by aid workers who formed a human rights monitoring team. 

One of the most serious allegations relates to January 25, 2018, when a 16-year-old Eritrean boy lost his eye, sense of smell and hearing in one ear after French riot police fired tear gas into a crowd of refugees during an eviction of their sleeping area in Calais.

The report says that the riot police fired “chemical agent grenades indiscriminately into a crowd of displaced people in [an] attempt to disperse them.”

The victim says that a rubber bullet gun was fired at him 10 to 15 metres away.

“The [riot police] fired tear gas from guns and filled the sky with smoke,” says a British volunteer who witnessed the incident. “I saw through the smoke a boy being carried by his friends, covered in blood. He had been hit in the eye and they had no way of getting him to hospital.

“His friends were crying; it was a group of minors and the boy himself was 16.”

Refugees run and cover their faces after French police fire tear gas in Calais [Courtesy: L'Auberge des Migrants, Refugee Info Bus, Utopia56 and Legal Shelter]
Refugees run and cover their faces after French police fire tear gas in Calais [Courtesy: L’Auberge des Migrants, Refugee Info Bus, Utopia56 and Legal Shelter]

On June 4, 2018, the IGPN, the French police watchdog, announced that it would open an investigation into the incident, which is yet to be concluded. 

At least 124 reports of physical violence by police officers against refugees were made to volunteers.

One testimony from a 21-year-old Ethiopian male on October 29, 2018 says that he was beaten by police.

“They tried to break my arms,” he says. “They beat me too much.” He claims he later lost consciousness

A 13-year-old boy from Afghanistan, who had been sleeping on the streets, says that he was a victim of tear-gassing and beatings by French authorities.

One pregnant woman in April 2018 says she was prevented from returning to her tent to retrieve medication after an eviction.

‘They actually put numbers behind our heads’

Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify the refugees’ claims, but videos and testimony given to Al Jazeera separately allege similar violence and intimidation in Dunkirk towards people living in the area.

The Calais and Dunkirk prefectures had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publishing.

Some refugees who were the subject of an eviction on September 6, 2018, in Dunkirk allege that they were cable tied and numbered.

A video, seen by Al Jazeera, supposedly taken inside one of the police stations shows a number of men with their hands bound with cable ties. The man who took the video says he was rounded up along with others by riot police and national police and then taken to a police station, which he believes was in Lille. While there, he says he was bound with plastic cable ties.

Another video given to Al Jazeera taken on the same day as the September 6 eviction shows men on a bus being taken to a police station with cable ties around their wrists.

Mustafa (not his real name) says that on that day, he was taken to a police station where he was numbered.

“The French police came to us, like lots of them. They caught everyone. They took some of the families to the hotels and the rest of the youth and young people, to the police stations far away from Dunkirk. Like one or two hours, it depends on the bus that took them.

“We’ve been detained for seven hours, maybe eight I’m not sure. They weren’t letting us out to go to the toilet. They actually put numbers behind our heads, on the neck so they can recognise us. So that’s how they were recognising us. They were calling one by one, taking information and fingerprints.”

Migrants carry a placard as part of the so-called jungle camp is cleared in February 2016 in Calais, France [Carl Court/Getty Images]
Migrants carry a placard as part of the so-called jungle camp is cleared in February 2016 in Calais, France [Carl Court/Getty Images]

A 27-year-old Kurdish man, who wishes to remain anonymous and who was the subject of a separate eviction on October 23, says that he was taken to a Dunkirk police station and had his name and number written on his arm.

“A number, just like an animal you know, just like [an] animal. All of the countries all over the world, they put this just on the animal’s hand, why they put this?” he says.

It has also been alleged in testimony received by Al Jazeera that during an eviction on October 23 in Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk, a woman, who was eight months pregnant, fainted after witnessing her husband being struck by police.

On the same day, another woman and her children were placed on a bus after being told they were being driven to an accommodation centre. She says she was then dropped off at the SNCF train station and told she could “sleep on the streets” with her children by a police officer.

There are currently 1,500 refugees living across Calais and Dunkirk including 100 unaccompanied minors and 10 family units.

“Police forces are using inhumane methods to harass the displaced communities in northern France. In Calais, the violence that aid workers are seeing is unjustifiable and currently on the rise,” said Charlotte Head, of the Human Rights Observers project, which was set up to monitor police brutality against refugees.

“Similar tactics are being used in Dunkirk with evictions taking place on an even larger scale,” she told Al Jazeera. “These people are seeking safety and their human rights are being violated by the very authorities that ought to be protecting them.”

Source: Al Jazeera