In Calais, the dull fear of being transferred to Rwanda

France, Migration and Asylum, Press Release

Read in:  French 

At a time when the UK is outsourcing its asylum policy to Rwanda, and is planning highly-criticized deportation flights to the African country,  the situation in Calais is becoming increasingly critical for the migrants, but also for the staff of the NGOs accompanying them. A team from EuroMed Rights went there to assess the situation.

The UK migration policy, which caused a wave of indignation, is now bringing its share of fears and its shocking effects to the shores of France. In Calais, London’s announcement to transfer to Rwanda asylum seekers who arrived irregularly on British soil since 1 January 2022 has been a shock. Even though the first deportation flight, scheduled for mid-June, has been grounded due to an appeal before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the British government announced that it would continue planning more deportation flights in the coming months.

In Calais, during food distribution or other collective moments, members of associations, volunteers, researchers and lawyers question this new plan and its implications for migrants and refugees. For EuroMed Rights team, this tension is transcribed by the migrants’ eloquent silence and their fear of testifying, even anonymously. In recent weeks, some have even gone so far as to commit the ultimate act. Several people, consumed by despair, are now in a critical situation in the UK after having tried to end their lives.

“Zero-fixing” policy

Around 800 to 1000 people are permanently in Calais, waiting and hoping to cross the Channel. The majority are single men, although there are also unaccompanied minors (around 15 to 20%) and single women from Sudan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Iran, etc. Many of them are subjected to the Dublin procedure (which provides that the responsibility for processing asylum applications lies with the country of first arrival), rejected for asylum and refused reception elsewhere than France.

The conservative UK government is counting on the Rwandan agreement to act as a deterrent to stop people crossing. However, the situation is constantly changing. At the end of May 2022, some minors were questioning their plans to cross, and the camps seemed less dense, but at the beginning of June 2022, crossings of the Channel – around 10,000 since January – had already resumed at a very high rate. No one knows what will happen next. The only thing that is certain is that these fears only serve to increase the hardship already suffered by the exiles passing through Calais and Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk.

For years now, on the French coast, the “zero fixation point” policy has been in force. As a real mental torture, this policy consists of regular expulsions of migrants from their camp, every 36 or 48 hours in Calais and once a week in Grande-Synthe. These operations aim at dissuading them from staying. The expelled people are then forced to grab their tents, duvets and other personal belongings in time – at the risk of having them confiscated – and move further away. “We also record cases of police violence against these persons. At least ten every week“, underlines a member of Human Right Observer, who tries to report the maximum of expulsions. This policy of exhaustion even pushes some to the end, as shown by the case of a young man found dead in Marck near Calais last May 2022, hanging from a strap in a trailer.

Beyond the traumas it generates, this strategy feeds a feeling of mistrust that accelerates the dispersal of camps on a large part of the French coast and inland. “Calais is the tip of the iceberg“, one activist points out. He observes the migrants coming and going as far as Paris, Brussels or near the Belgian border, as in Tournai.

Filming, fines, constants checks

In addition to this violence, there are also barbed wire, ever denser fences, excessive police presence, and intimidation of NGOs. The most common intimidations are the fines imposed on vehicles, often under baroque pretexts; the control of identities described as “incessant” by volunteers; the filming of their members by mobile phone without consent – to which we were subjected during an eviction – or the fines for breaking the law during Covid-19 lockdowns. Of course, appeals are possible, but they take time in a context where volunteers are already overburdened and have to make up for the absence of the state. “In Calais, decrees have prohibited the distribution of food in certain areas of the city since September 2020 before being finally lifted several weeks ago,” recalls an activist, who believes that “this kind of shameful measure is not seen anywhere else in France”.

Putting an end to the harassment and “deportations”

Face to this escalation of violence, it seems important to us, as EuroMed Rights, to inform the general public about the daily life in Calais, which often disappears from the media and only re-emerge at the time of ultimate tragedies, such as the shipwreck that cost the lives of 27 migrants in November 2021, or the hunger strike of several activists. We want to remind the French authorities of the inhumane nature of these costly and ineffective policies. Since 2017, nearly 425 million euros have been spent to secure the French border, and to put in place a range of devices (heartbeat detectors, fences, dogs, etc.). As a result, the city has been disfigured (and Calaisians are suffering) and the crossing of migrants has become increasingly dangerous. The at least 350 deaths recorded since 1999 are proof of this. Several MEPs are calling for the launch of a European inquiry so that the EU can guarantee the rights of exiles on the spot. We believe this is a necessary step, given that the French authorities are not taking the risk.

In this context, it seems crucial to EuroMed Rights to show solidarity with the three British NGOs – Care4 Calais, Detention Action and PCS Union – which have filed a complaint against the British government to have this bilateral agreement With Rwanda cancelled. This type of agreement, which is inspired by the Australian model, must not be replicated in Europe. However, as we know, other countries seem to have already been seduced by these radical solutions. Denmark is one of them. After the vote in 2021 of a law authorising this outsourcing, the Danish government has also started negotiations with Rwanda. Other African countries such as Ethiopia and Tunisia have also been approached. How far will this obsession go? The European Court of Human Rights has temporarily put an end to the British attempt. But until when?

Article by Marjorie Bertouille Cessac, migration team at EuroMed Rights 

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