FRANCE (AFP) — “France, the country of human rights? Only if you’re French!” snorts Jacob Garji, one of hundreds of migrants living rough in Calais who are hunted nightly by police.
Fifteen months after a squalid camp housing thousands of people aiming to sneak into Britain was bulldozed, the French Channel port is still synonymous with broken dreams.
On Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron swept into town, vowing to stop Calais from serving as an antechamber for migrants desperate to reach Britain.
But the brutal tactics used by French police to prevent the re-emergence of another “Jungle,” as the demolished camp was nicknamed, risk tarnishing the image of a country that sees itself as a beacon of human rights.
Several migrants told AFP they had repeatedly been woken in the woods around Calais by police who sprayed them with “gas” — NGOs have reported the use of pepper spray — and seized their belongings.
“They gas the tent while you’re sleeping or gas you in your face. The tent, they take it, the sleeping bag, they take it. They even take the medicine given to us in the hospital,” said Dawit, a 21-year-old Ethiopian migrant, as he queued in the cold for tea and bread distributed by a local charity.
Police have in the past denied using pepper spray against migrants and said they seize belongings abandoned by those who flee for fear of being detained.
Using Dawit as an interpreter, several Ethiopians also described being detained by police and dumped outside Calais, about two hours on foot from their camp — part of what NGOs describe as a strategy to disperse migrants.
Home for the Ethiopians, whose clothes are splattered with mud, is currently a copse next to an industrial estate towered over by giant electricity pylons.
Jacob Garji, 21, and his brother David, 22, have also set up camp there on the final leg of their family’s journey from Iran through Europe.
The brothers, from a Jewish family of Afghan origin that fled anti-Semitism and discrimination against Afghans, have tried nightly over the past three weeks to stow away on trucks crossing to Britain — to no avail.
But the conditions endured by migrants on the streets of France have only hardened their resolve.
In Paris, the two men were shocked to meet asylum-seekers sleeping under bridges for months while waiting for their claims to be processed.
In Calais, they have frequently been detained and also had their tent repeatedly torn down by police.
“I am ready to spend one or two years to get to Britain. It is my future” said Jacob, who speaks fluent French and English but has no desire to linger in a country that “is only good for French people.”
NGOs have accused Macron, who campaigned for president last year as a champion of open borders, of betraying France’s long tradition of offering sanctuary by drawing a strict line between those fleeing war or persecution and so-called “economic” migrants.
Three charities on Tuesday refused an invitation to meet with him to discuss a new immigration and asylum plan.
Brice Benazzouz, regional coordinator of the Medecins du Monde medical charity, accused the police in Calais of trying to drive out migrants by “exhaustion.”
Francois Guennoc, vice president of the Auberge des Migrants charity, said he did not want to be “a mere alibi for a strategy that is already well established.”
Both charities called for a review of a 2003 agreement that effectively pushed Britain’s border across the Channel into France, trapping migrants there.
Macron has vowed to press Britain at a summit meeting Thursday to shoulder more of the migrant burden, while maintaining a tough line on “illegal occupation of public space.”
It’s a line that has gone over well in Calais.
“They should be sent back home to their country,” Fabienne Bouin, a 53-year-old housekeeper, told AFP, accusing the migrants of being “aggressive.”
Ludovic Deconinck, the amiable manager of a busy cafe in the town center, said that he was not personally bothered by the migrants’ presence but worried the situation had “affected the Calais brand.”
“I feel sorry for them but there’s not much we can do for them,” he said.