Since the late 1990s the Channel Tunnel and the port of Calais have been a gathering place for migrants seeking a route into Britain.
Although a migrant make-shift campsite known as the Calais Jungle became well known in the last few years, there have been many camps established by migrants on plots of unused land.
Numbers of migrants reached a peak during the 2015 migrant crisis, when the Calais Jungle had over 7,000 people living in it. The Jungle was cleared in October 2016 and 6,400 people were relocated across France, often forcibly and violently.
Possessions were destroyed, homes were burnt and bulldozed.
Yet migrants and refugees continue to arrive in Calais — despite the reports of brutal treatment by the Calais police. The reason for this is simple. You cannot claim asylum in the UK unless you are physically in the country and there are no legal routes to get here.
People attempt risky and dangerous routes; hiding under lorries, or trying to get through the tunnel. Migrants gather at other places, such as Dunkirk, anywhere where they may be able to find a way into the UK.
As long as there are forces which drive people from their homes there will continue to be men, women and children determined to make a better life. For many that means coming to the UK.
Care for Calais, a charity providing direct aid to refugees, reports around 1,000 refugees are sleeping rough in Calais and Dunkirk; another 500 in Brussels; and over 1,500 in Paris. They have no access to basic sanitation and may not have changed their clothes in weeks, leading to skin diseases. They have no shelter at night or regular food supply. Their health is in shocking decline.
Worse, the humanitarian efforts that are made to help people are being actively disrupted by the French police. This is documented in detail in a report by Human Rights Watch, Like Living Hell.
In March 2017 local authorities in Calais issued an order banning the distribution of food, water, blankets and clothing to migrants. Although this order was suspended by the courts, the Calais authorities continue to impede the work of charities, limiting the times when aid can be distributed.
Aid workers have told of police physically blocking them from approaching migrants or knocking food out of their hands; one group were encircled by police with rifles.
Police routinely harass and abuse migrants sleeping rough. They use pepper spray on people, including children, then take away blankets and sleeping bags. A 17 year old Eritrean girl told how the police woke her and took her belongings before driving her to a remote location and leaving her there.
The Refugee Rights Data Project found that 90% of Calais refugees and migrants had experienced violence at the hands of the police, including teeth being knocked out and broken bones.
This unfettered police brutality runs contrary to both French and international law and violates the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. It is also an unjustifiable interference with the migrants’ rights to food and water. The Calais authorities deny police behave in this way.
French President Macron has made commitments to improve the treatment of refugees in France, but so far these are but empty words. What is needed is a clear and unequivocal directive to stop police interfering with aid distribution and intimidating and assaulting migrants. Those who are the subject of allegations should be held to account and be immediately suspended.
Immediate funding must be given to provide shelter to all those sleeping rough, or the cold Calais winter will lead to needless deaths. There should be offices in Calais to provide legal guidance to refugees on the asylum process and assistance with applications. Unaccompanied migrant children should have access to child protection services, including shelters with sufficient capacity and adequate staffing.
The British government is culpable too.
They heartlessly shirk their responsibility to open the borders to those fleeing. When I visited the camp in 2015 there were a growing number of Syrian refuges arriving optimistic because they had heard Britain would take in some Syrian refugees, only to be devastated to learn that they would take no-one from the Calais camp.
Every person I spoke to had a different story of hardship with a young man from Sudan saying dangerous was an inadequate word to describe the journey he had taken. This man had lost a friend who while trying to sneak onto a train had been chased by police with dogs onto the tracks where he was run down by a train. His death was reported in the UK press, but not the circumstances of it, he was referred to as “a man from Africa”.
We must keep up sustained pressure on the government to do more, to accept more people.
Otherwise tragedies like this will continue to happen, as human beings will continue to seek, with determination, a better life.