Just two days after the French council of state issued an order for the government to "improve the living conditions" of migrants in Calais, France's prison watchdog group has accused the authorities of violating the "fundamental rights" of migrants.
In the eight-page report, Adeline Hazan, the head of the CGLPL — the Controller General of Places of Deprivation of Liberty, an independent French body that monitors conditions inside prisons and detention centers — accused the government of abusing the rules on migrant detention in order to "unclog" the northern French port city.
Some 4,500 migrants are currently living in Calais, in a sprawling makeshift camp known as "the Jungle," waiting for a chance to cross the channel and reach the UK.
According to Hazan, French authorities transferred 779 migrants from the "Jungle" to detention centers around France, between October 21 and November 10. Migrants were relocated to cities like Metz, Marseille, Rouen, Paris, Toulouse, and Nimes, despite the fact that there was room in a nearby facility in Coquelles, just three miles from Calais.
Detention centers are meant to house migrants who are facing deportation, but Hazan said the plan was to "spread migrants out across the French territory" to ease pressure on Calais. Out of 779 migrants who were sent to detention centers across the country, 578 were eventually released, 15 were allowed to travel to other EU countries, and 186 remained in detention. Many come from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. According to Hazan, "given the physical dangers they would be exposed to by returning to their home country," they cannot be deported.
Hazan was critical not only of the government's practice of using the detention centers to temporarily house the migrants — a practice the report recommended ending — but also of the conditions associated with the relocation. Some of the migrants who were sent to the centers were forcefully separated from their families, and they voiced concerns about the well-being and safety of their young relatives.
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The watchdog also highlighted the migrants' lack of access to adequate information about their legal rights. A group of migrants who were flown to a detention center in the southern city of Nimes were read their rights by an interpreter over a phone loudspeaker, in a crowded room filled with noise, the report said. In some cases, no mention was made of the refugees' rights to file an asylum claim.
Migrants were also denied vital information about charities and refugee advocacy groups, including Forum Réfugiés (Refugee Forum), a group that dispenses legal advice and support to migrants.
The watchdog also found that some migrants were given identical, pre-filled detention forms. "These documents, which were obviously filled out in advance, reveal a lack of analysis of the unique circumstances of each individual," the CGLPL wrote.
In a long letter addressed to the CGLPL, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve defended the government's handling of what he described as a "major migration crisis." Cazeneuve said the government would continue using the country's detention centers "rationally," as part of an effort to help secure the port of Calais and the entrance of the Channel tunnel that runs between France and England.
On Wednesday, district authorities in Calais announced that the main bypass leading to the port would be closed to pedestrians until the end of the national state of emergency that was declared in the wake of the November 13 terror attacks.
"The situation created by the presence of migrants on the Calais port bypass has created significant risk of traffic accidents, endangering both pedestrians and drivers," the Pas-de-Calais prefecture said in its statement.
The announcement came on the heels of a night of clashes between migrants and the police on the bypass — a favored spot for migrants attempting to storm UK-bound trucks. Local authorities said migrants had hurled rocks at the police and attempted to block the road to slow down truck traffic near the entrance to the port.
"It's not the first time incidents like these occur in this area," a spokesperson for the Pas-de-Calais prefecture told VICE News. The priority, the spokesperson said, was to "secure" the road leading to the port to prevent accidents. There have been many fatalities in Calais since the summer, and several migrants have died after being hit by cars near the port entrance.
Last week, a Hungarian truck driver filmed himself accelerating toward a group of refugees trying to board UK-bound trucks, forcing them to jump out of the way.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray