A HUMANITARIAN organisation has made further allegations against French police, accusing them of abusing migrants within the port city of Calais.
The Human Rights Observers (HRO) group alleges that French police have been increasingly engaging in aggressive evictions, with the intention of ruining the hope and the spirits of migrants camped around the northern city.
In 2020, 973 evictions were carried out – doubling the number from 2018. There were 973 evictions in Calais – nearly three a day, and more than double the 452 recorded in 2018. In December alone, 526 tents were seized and 41 arrests were made.
Violent incidents recorded during these evictions include a tent being dragged by a tractor with a refugee still inside, an Eritrean man being seriously wounded when a rubber bullet was fired at his face from a 10-metre distance, and tear gas being indiscriminately fired into camps.
‘It’s been like this for months,’ said Isabella Anderson, an HRO field coordinator. ‘These constant evictions are part of a policy by the French government to wear down asylum seekers, to fatigue them and take away their hope.
‘It’s like torture.’ The evictions are on a rolling schedule to prevent refugees acquiring limited rights and the police requiring a court order to clear the land.
‘They come at 5am, circle around your tent and cut it with knives,’ said Abdul, a 20-year-old from Sudan who has been in Calais for five months, camping in the bushes in the hope of one day crossing to the UK by boat or lorry. ‘It has happened to me so many times. They treat us like animals, not humans. In Sudan there is war, people are killed, women are raped. But in some ways, it is better than here.’
Nasser, an Afghan refugee who turned 18 in December, said the constant evictions had affected his mental health. ‘The police keep coming,’ he said. ‘You would think maybe if it rains they would not come, but they do. They even came on New Year’s when everyone was happy and it was a holiday.
‘They take our stuff and we have to be outside for many hours – sometimes 10 to 12 hours. They don’t care if I’m a minor.’ Most evictions are carried out using ‘flagrance’, a measure which allows police to remove occupants off private land if there has been a complaint and they have been there for less than 48 hours.
Some lead to arrests and deportations, but often refugees flee and later return. Lawyers say the evictions are harassment and a breach of UN and French human rights law, with the emergency measure – intended for gathering facts about a crime – deployed ‘wrongly and permanently’.
‘It is a complete abuse of the system,’ said Margot Sifre, who specialises in evictions for legal support charity Cabane Juridique. ‘Under normal circumstances, an eviction requires the authorisation of a judge, a social diagnosis to identify vulnerable people, and preparation to provide rehousing solutions.
‘But under flagrance, which should be a short-term measure, there is no legal basis and no opportunity to appeal.’
Bastien Roland, a lawyer working in Calais, said the tactics were ‘deliberately vague and difficult to contest’. He added: ‘The government spends millions of euros to slow these refugees down. They will still try to cross to England, but with how many traumas?’
Larger-scale evictions – described as ‘sheltering’ operations, involving the dispersal of refugees to centres around the country – are carried out by French authorities through court orders. On 29 September, nearly 800 people were evicted in an area known as the Hospital, one of 15 such operations last year.
After the destruction of the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp in 2016 and another large makeshift camp last September, the evictions are seen by the French authorities as a key weapon in preventing similar ‘fixing points’ being established by the estimated 1,200 refugees now in Calais and Dunkirk, which include pregnant women and children.
- Mohammed Alburai witnessed a lot of suffering in Gaza, but he never saw homelessness there. So when he arrived in Slovenia, he was shocked to find people living on the streets.
Now the 39-year-old Palestinian refugee is helping the Slovenian homeless. He sees it as his way of giving back to a society that has given him a chance to live in peace and safety.
‘I saw a lot of injury and death, I still have nightmares about that. No way!
‘No, I didn’t expect to see homeless people in Europe,’ he exclaims. In Gaza, it does sometimes happen that a person loses their home but the community always gathers round to help. So I am going out twice a week as a volunteer to help the homeless in Ljubljana.’
Mohammed has plenty of experience in helping people in distress. Back in Gaza, as well as having his own metal workshop, he spent nine years as an ambulance driver and assistant paramedical officer for the Red Crescent.
‘I saw a lot of injury and death,’ he says. ‘Sometimes there were air attacks and whole families – two or three generations – well, nobody survived. I still have nightmares about that.
‘Sometimes they just want to talk. They want someone to take an interest in them; they appreciate that.’
It was the constant insecurity that prompted him to leave Gaza in September 2018. ‘It was not about me but my children,’ he says. ‘Every day you hear someone has died and you think maybe you could be next. It started to feel as if we were just numbers. I did not see a day of peace in my life.’
Mohammed felt he had to go ahead alone. With a heavy heart he parted from his wife Wafa, a pharmacist, daughter Ebaa, 7, son Watan, 5, and his mother Etaf. His journey took him through Egypt, Turkey, Greece and the Balkans before he reached Slovenia, where he applied for asylum in 2019. His application was granted in January 2020.
Now Mohammed rents an attic in the centre of Ljubljana. He speaks to his family every day on a video link and watches from afar as his children grow up in his absence.
But Mohammed is not one for self-pity. Instead, he puts his own worries aside and channels his energy into helping the less fortunate. Volunteering with the Slovenian Red Cross and the NGO Kings of the Street, he looks after the medical needs of the homeless.
Although Mohammed has taken Slovenian language classes and passed an exam, he still finds himself mostly speaking English. ‘I didn’t expect it but quite a few of the homeless are educated and speak English,’ he says. ‘They know me now, and they read about Palestine!’
In his voluntary work, Mohammed is paired up with Tine, a Slovenian student of social work. Their friendship has strengthened Mohammed’s sense of being at home in Ljubljana.
But of course, only having his family with him will really make Mohammed feel settled. He speaks longingly of Ebaa, who loves swimming and painting, and Watan, ‘the youngest horse rider in Palestine’.
Since Mohammed now has refugee status, it is likely his application to bring his family to join him will be granted. ‘I do not think that will be a problem, I will get it sooner or later,’ he says. ‘The problem will be getting them out of Gaza and paying for them to come here.’
The cost for a family of four will be considerable. To afford it, he urgently needs a job – not easy to find in these times of the pandemic.
‘My ‘‘medical career’’ is just voluntary really,’ he says. ‘In fact, I am more of a handyman, with metal, with wood.’ He thinks again of having his own workshop.
‘Nothing is easy in this life,’ he says. ‘I am not afraid of hard work but in order to be creative, you have to be free from worry. When you are worrying, your mind is elsewhere.’
Mohammed’s mind is with his family. ‘I have not seen them for two years,’ he says. ‘I wake in the middle of the night, thinking of them. It is OK to talk on the video but it is not the same as holding your son in your arms.’
- A popular Romanian singer, who was impressed by the resilience of refugees, has written a song for them, dedicated ‘to all who overcame difficulties and still found the beauty of life’.
Beck Corlan, 30, is an independent musician, well known to audiences in her home town of Timisoara and beyond. ‘I first understood the real situation of refugees when I saw pictures of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi lying on the seashore. His little body; I couldn’t get over it. I wrote all my feelings down in my diary, then put them to music,’ she says.
The resulting song was called ‘The Voices’, and Beck and her band were invited to sing it at this year’s World Refugee Day (WRD) event in Timisoara. ‘My door is always open. Apart from being an artist, and a wife and mother, I am a friend to as many as possible. This is natural to me.’
Beck, who is married to a Swedish wood sculptor and has two young children, lives in a spacious flat in Timisoara’s picturesque old town. Her home is alive with visiting friends and children who come and go for music lessons.
As far back as Beck can remember, she has always sung. Born in Drobeta-Turnu Severin, a small town on the Danube, she was the junior in a musical family. ‘My grandfather played various instruments while grandma was his vocalist. Singing came naturally to my parents and brothers as well.’
When she was five, the family moved to Timisoara and Beck began studying piano and acoustic guitar at ‘Ion Vidu’ National College of Art. ‘The music I was taught in school meant mostly theory and strictness, so I felt the urge to add joy and search for creativity,’ she says.
Beck grew up with gospel music that she used to sing in church. ‘But I couldn’t limit myself to a single style,’ she says. ‘I was attracted by everything that was different from Romanian folk, like African and Indian rhythms.
‘This is why I play a mix of reggae, funk, soul, jazz and, yeah, why I like to wear baggy trousers and turbans. People from different cultures inspire me. I have many refugee friends who sing with me and tell me their stories, and to whom I dedicate my music.
‘I can only speak about them through my songs and encourage the world to stand with refugees.’