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Priest on hunger strike in Calais to denounce police treatment of migrants

By RFI
Europe © RFI / Marie Casadebaig
OCT 22, 2021 LISTEN
© RFI / Marie Casadebaig

A priest and two activists have been on hunger strike for the past two weeks in the northern French city of Calais in support of migrants they say are being mistreated by police. Rights groups and charities have long denounced the living conditions of the 1,500 people stuck in makeshift camps, waiting for an opportunity to cross the Channel to Britain. 

Father Philippe Demesteere has set up his own camp in a discreet corner of the Saint-Pierre church in Calais. He began his hunger strike here on 11 October, accompanied by two members of a local association that offers support to migrants.

The trio is calling on authorities to grant Calais migrants the trêve hivernale, a French truce that protects people from being evicted from their homes during the harsh winter months.

Around the northern city, which has become a hub for accessing transport to cross the English Channel, police are given daily orders to dismantle tents and huts that pop up in vacant lots.

"The objective of this policy is to give them nowhere to rest," Demesteere told RFI's Marie Casadebaig. "They are worn down physically and mentally, something which is intolerable to see in France."

Since the start of the year, local charities and rights groups estimate there have been 850 evictions in and around Calais. 

"For the first time, associations have decided to publicly denounce the systematic, institutionalised theft of personal items belonging to exiled people during evictions," the Calais-based Human Rights Observers group wrote earlier this week.

"If the state took your belongings by force and dumped them here, would you call this theft?" says the caption on a photo on social media, noting that some 2,833 tents have been destroyed since January.

Empty bags

"When people are evicted, they are escorted without their tent, without their bags. The excuse is that if people are not with their belongings, then they can be confiscated, which is absurd,” Emma, coordinator for the organisation told France 3 regional television.

"If the migrants are not next to their things it's simply because they have already been forced to move on, or they are at that moment collecting a meal from an association that has state permission to be there."

"For us, protection against the wind and the rain is the most precious thing we have," a Sudanese refugee in a vacant lot in Marck-en-Calaisis told France 3 television.

"When the police came they said 'we're taking your stuff' and when they don't confiscate it, they throw it away," he said.

"Numerous backpacks are full when collected by the teams sent in to clear out the camps, but later on, these bags are found empty," Laurine, another worker with Human Rights Observers noted.

Concerns over health, trafficking

Véronique Deprez-Boudier, the deputy prefect of police in Calais, denies that the dismantling of camps is a form of harassment, intended to humiliate migrants.

"These operations to dismantle camps and squats are always overseen by a legal authority and they are intended to prevent unsanitary conditions, and to prevent human traffickers from setting up shop," she told the press.

She said authorities did not want to see a repeat of the situation five years ago, when there were some 10,000 people in a sprawling camp known as the Jungle.

Deprez-Boudier has also rejected claims by rights groups that theft and destruction of property is rife. She admitted however that the protocol concerning the recuperation of confiscated belongings needed to be reviewed.

Rights groups have criticised the place known as the “Ressourcerie” in Calais, set up by the prefecture in 2018, where migrants come to pick up their belongings. It's been described as a dump – a huge shipping container, open to the skies where bags, tents and blankets are thrown in a heap.

"We are working on setting up a new protocol whereby personal belongings can be accessed more easily, a place where things can be sorted and dried before being handed back to migrants," Deprez-Boudier said.

Tug-of-war

The issue of migrants crossing the Channel to southern England is a constant source of friction between Paris and London. Two weeks ago, the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin called for negotiations to begin on a treaty to address the problem of illegal migration which had not been adequately discussed during the Brexit deal.

He also urged the British government to "uphold its promise" to finance border security in France to the tune of 62.7 million euros, in accordance with a deal signed in July.

A total of 15,400 people attempted to cross the Channel in the first eight months of this year, a increase of 50 percent over the figure for the whole of 2020, French coast guard statistics show.

For his part, Demesteere says the problem of migration, which has been ongoing for more than 20 years, needs to be solved through a citizens' convention. "It's too important an issue for us to leave it in the hands of politicians and their schemes." 

The priest says he will continue his hunger strike until 2 November, the day after the winter eviction rule comes into effect. Depending on what the police do that day, he will decide on his next move.

He has been granted a meeting with the head of local police on Friday.

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