Vague Statements By Politicians Create Rumours and Tensions in Calais
Sandhurst Treaty aftermath | Rumours and false information | Large police clearances | An Ethiopian teenager sustains grievous, permanent injury as a result of CRS clearance | Large tent distribution following clearances | More clearances expected imminently
Last week, France and Britain signed a new treaty regarding the the refugee crisis and border security in Calais, and UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced that the UK would admit more asylum seeking minors. These statements have unleashed a flood of rumours among communities of displaced people, ultimately resulting in hundreds of new arrivals in Calais and causing chaos on the ground.
Following the Franco-British summit on 18 January and the signing of the new Sandhurst Treaty, hundreds of new people began arriving in Calais, as a result of a combination of factors including false information and rumours among the wider community, as well as police crackdowns in the likes of Brussels and Ventimiglia. We have heard two distinct and prevailing rumours: that the Canadian government was coming to Calais to take asylum seekers to Canada, and that the UK government was coming to the port city to transfer hundreds of minors to the UK to process their applications for asylum and family reunification.
Neither of these rumours have any basis in fact. It is still unclear where the rumour concerning Canada originated, but false information regarding the UK taking in minors is likely a direct result of vague statements made by the government. While the UK may indeed end up taking more minors in the long run, this is not something that will happen quickly, as many people appear to have thought.
The sudden influx of new arrivals have created a host of issues for aid organizations operating on the ground. As those new to the city are not familiar with how these organizations operate, there has been panic among the refugee community regarding the availability of food and non-food items to help them keep warm in the bitter Calais cold. This panic has led to a number of situations in which chaos caused by a lack of information prevented aid organizations from distributing both food and non-food items.
Fortunately, NGOs operating in Calais are used to dealing with quickly changing situations, and had geared up to serve additional asylum-seekers and disseminate information to refugee communities regarding the systems employed to serve them. However, presumably in response to the drastic increase in numbers at the main distribution point in the area, large numbers of CRS were sent into the area last Thursday. They effectively evicted those living there by destroying their tents, sleeping bags, jackets and other property.
Many of the police officers effectuating the eviction were not wearing their identification badges — as they are required to by French law — and demonstrated unnecessary hostility toward both volunteers and displaced people in the vicinity. The clearance also set off a mass panic among displaced people, to which the police responded by deploying numerous tear gas canisters. In desperation, refugees began to collect rocks to throw at the police, who in turn deployed a number of tear gas canisters in the vicinity. This caused an already tense situation to escalate, and forced volunteers distributing food to evacuate the area. At least one rubber bullet was also shot at a refugee. A tear gas canister hit a sixteen-year-old Eritrean boy in the face. He has already lost his eye, and is still in hospital as his injuries require an additional operation on his nose. He may just end up back on the streets when he is released from hospital.
The incident prevented aid organizations from entering the area at all for the rest of the day, depriving the refugee community there from receiving much needed non food items in the wake of the police clearance. Food was distributed late that evening a few blocks away, but organizations were forced to hand out bento boxes instead of conducting a normal distribution, due to a continued heightened tensions in the area. The clearance and subsequent panic about how they would be able to keep warm at night forced NGOs to halt normal distributions until they were able to collect and hand out tents to replace those that were cleared a few days later.
It is not clear why the police chose this particular time to conduct such a massive operation. They could be trying to prevent the establishment of another camp amidst the large amount of new arrivals, or they could be attempting to deter additional people from coming to Calais. Regardless of the reasoning, the timing of the operation was particularly severe, as it caused already increased tensions in this particular area of Calais to boil over. In turn, aid organizations were left scrambling to respond to the needs of the communities, and people were forced to sleep outside in the freezing rain with no shelter, sleeping bags, and few other means to keep warm.
In recent days, NGOs in Calais have managed to provide people with shelter and warm clothes, at least until the next clearance by police. However, tensions in the area remain high, creating continuing difficulties in distributing food and non food items that are desperately needed. As such, the police operation served to create significant problems both to volunteers working with NGOs and more importantly, to displaced people trying to stay warm and avoid violence while they are forced to sleep in the woods of Calais. Sadly, this is not something that the police take into consideration when planning their operations. In fact, NGOs are anticipating and preparing for another eviction of the same area, which will only serve to increase tensions for all individuals on the ground.
Author: Sarah Marich