Top French Court Orders Government to Offer Humanitarian Aid to Calais Migrants

PARIS (The Washington Post) —
Caravans in the makeshift migrant camp known as “the jungle”, near Calais, northern France, Friday, Oct. 2016. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

France’s highest administrative court ordered the government to provide humanitarian aid to the hundreds of migrants who have continued arriving in the northern port city of Calais even after authorities destroyed the infamous “Jungle” camp.

In blistering language, the court decried the squalid conditions facing migrants in Calais, long a dramatic focal point in French politics and in Europe’s ongoing migration crisis. It also rejected appeals by state and local authorities, both of which had resisted an earlier order to improve the situation on the ground.

“The living conditions of migrants reveal a failure of public authority, which is liable to expose the persons concerned to inhuman or degrading treatment and thus constitutes a serious and manifestly unlawful interference with a fundamental freedom,” read the opinion of the court, known as the Conseil d’Etat.

The ruling came less than a week after the publication of a sharply critical report from Human Rights Watch, based on conversations with approximately 60 migrants, about half of whom were minors. Those interviewed complained of police violence and regular disruptions of humanitarian assistance, especially food and access to amenities as basic as toilets and showers.

Migrants in Calais interviewed by The Washington Post earlier in the summer voiced the same complaints, with some saying they now sleep on the street.

But perhaps the most shocking allegation in the Human Rights Watch report – widely discussed in French media – was that riot police regularly use pepper spray on child migrants, even when they pose no conceivable threat.

Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said in response to the court’s ruling on Monday that France would open two facilities in the Calais region to house and better inform incoming migrants about the asylum process.

Collomb assured reporters that “better access to water will be guaranteed.” But this, he added, went hand in hand with “avoiding the need for the resettlement of camps.”

The interior minister also addressed the Human Rights Watch report. “The police do not use pepper spray, but tear gas,” he said.

For nearly two years, the predominantly working-class city of Calais was home to the “Jungle,” a sprawling, squalid encampment where thousands of migrants and refugees waited in legal limbo as they tried to enter Britain, 20 miles across the English Channel.

Throughout that time, local residents complained that the presence of so many migrants posed considerable threats to their personal and economic security. They found their champion in far-right Marine Le Pen, whose candidacy for the French presidency featured tough stances on both migrants and Muslims. Le Pen lost the election in a landslide, but she won in Calais.

After revelations that some of those involved in the 2015 Paris attacks had entered Europe disguised as migrants, the presence of an undocumented and unregulated migrant camp on French soil forced the government to act – especially as elections loomed.

In the end, it demolished the Jungle in October. But the end of the Jungle was not the end of the situation in Calais, as migrants have continued arriving, most still hoping to go onward to Britain.

Collomb said Monday that there are 350 to 500 migrants in the city, many from Eritrea and Ethiopia.

According to the Human Rights Watch report, without the Jungle and the basic support it provided – mostly with the help of British and French aid workers – these newcomers have few of the basic necessities they need.

Michael Bochenek, senior counsel to the Human Rights Watch children’s division and the principal author of the Calais report, said the court’s decision was a welcome, if overdue, intervention.

“It’s hard to see how the state could have reached a different conclusion and how the authorities could have possibly resisted offering toilets, showers and water for migrants in need.”

But, he added, the broader problem remains the difficulty and opacity of the process by which migrants can apply for asylum in France. While many of those who arrive still wish to go to Britain, few are aware of their options should they decide to remain in France.

By contrast, those who are aware face significant “structural barriers,” Bochenek said, often lacking the means to travel from Calais to Lille, nearly 70 miles away, to appear in person at the one office in the region where they are entitled to apply.

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