PARIS (Reuters) – African migrants camped in the northern French port of Calais in hopes of eventually reaching Britain are subject to police beatings and harassment, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
The New York-based group (HRW) called on the French government to open an investigation into what it called “routine ill-treatment” by police towards the approximately 2,400 migrants and asylum seekers living in the open air or in make-shift tents near the busy port.
The migrants, many of whom have crossed into France from Italy, are escaping humanitarian crises in Africa and the Middle East. Most come from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Syria.
The port has long been a magnet for illegal migrants trying to reach Britain, where they believe they are more likely to find work than in France, or already have relatives.
“The French government must put an end to police violence and honor its pledge to quickly furnish housing to asylum-seekers,” HRW’s Izza Leghtas said in a statement.
“A lasting solution to the crisis in Calais has been awaited for a long time.”
Flare-ups have occurred in recent months between the rising number of migrants, who try to sneak into cargo trucks passing into Britain, and security forces. Last September, hundreds of migrants protested what they said was police violence.
In the wake of clashes, French and British authorities announced heightened security measures, but a shelter pledged by the French government for 1,500 migrants and asylum seekers to open by January is not yet fully functional, HRW said.
In its report HRW said it had documented 19 cases of police abuse, notably beatings, towards migrants, including two involving children. Eight people suffered broken bones or other visible wounds they said were caused by police.
Another 21 people were sprayed with tear gas, HRW said.
Most of the migrants are living without shelter, with no access to toilets and showers and limited access to running water. Many rely on meals provided by local volunteer organizations.
Under French law, asylum seekers have the right to be housed in a state-run facility as they await the processing of their claim.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said HRW’s allegations had not been properly verified, and the group should have met with police heads “about precise facts” before publishing them.
Over 400 Calais migrants have asked for asylum since September, Cazeneuve said in the statement. On average, housing was found for them within a month, and their cases were examined within 45 days, he said.