How Calais migrant crisis has worsened since Macron's visit

By Elisa Perrigueur

A recent battle between groups of migrants in Calais left 21 people injured, including five with gunshot wounds. Four were left in a critical condition. Local voluntary groups on the ground say that the situation in the Channel port town has got worse in recent weeks, notably after a visit by President Emmanuel Macron and because of a policy of not allowing any new migrant camps to spring up. Elisa Perrigueur reports from Calais.

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The icy wind is lashing their worried faces. It is Friday, February 2nd and three migrants, Abebe from Ethiopia, Jo from Somalia and Eupui from Cameroon, are in the Dunes industrial estate in Calais, declaring how they had never before seen scenes of “such violence” during their long months in the French port. The previous day, at around 5.30pm, on a muddy stretch of land surrounded by smoking factories, these migrants had watched as dozens of silhouetted, clearly angry figures suddenly emerged.

“Everything happened very quickly, we saw some Eritreans whom we'd never seen before. They had sticks, they were pursuing around 20 Afghans, wanting to hit them,” says Abebe calmly in French. “We wanted to protect them, violence is pointless … they tried to hit us too.” Within ten minutes, said the three men, vehicles containing members of the CRS riot police had also hurtled into view, sirens blaring and blue lights flashing under the dark grey skies.

The police pursuit of the migrants armed with sticks had started between houses on the nearby route de Gravelines. It had then extended into the fields around the area, under the anxious watch of these particular local residents. “Our group sleeps here in this copse,” explains Abebe, pointing out the survival blankets and the rubbish scattered between the dead trees on the industrial estate. “We're afraid now,” he says. “We're thinking about ways to protect ourselves. We didn't sleep that night, two of us kept permanent lookout. Now we know that certain people have guns and we don't...”

A group of migrants living rough in Calais, February 2018. © Elisa Perrigueur. A group of migrants living rough in Calais, February 2018. © Elisa Perrigueur.
The incident they had witnessed at the Dunes industrial estate on the late afternoon of Thursday February 1st had followed the unprecedented violence earlier that day in the centre of Calais where close to 800 migrants – Sudanese, Eritreans, Afghans, Ethiopians, Kurds, many of them young – still wait in the hope of making it across the Channel to Britain. In the middle of the afternoon a massive fight broke out between Eritreans and Afghans when food was being handed out near the hospital. Twenty-one migrants were injured, five of them by gunshot. Four of them were left in a critical condition.

“They're all Eritreans [who were shot]. The one whose life was not at risk was hurt in the legs. As for all the victims, they are between 12 and 22 years old, according to their stated ages,” said the local prosecutor from Boulogne-sur-Mer, Pascal Marconville. “We still don't know if it was one or more people who fired a shot.” The police have been looking for an Afghan aged 37 who is suspected of having been one of those who opened fire. “The victims are saying very little, we still don't know the cause of the confrontation,” said the prosecutor. “But according to the first witness statements the attacker or attackers came straight towards the crowd with the firm intention of firing, there were no altercations before the gunshots.”

It was in reprisal for this attack that groups of African migrants armed with sticks “intended to hunt down Afghans in Calais”, said Pascal Marconville. These were the migrants whom Abebe, Jo and Eupui saw in the Dunes industrial estate on the Thursday evening. That same night the interior minister Gérard Collomb came to Calais where he quickly denounced an “escalation in violence that has become complete intolerable … for the people of Calais and the migrants themselves”. He added: “We're going to take matters in hand everywhere.” On Friday morning the Ministry of the Interior announced the despatch of two additional units of CRS riot police, adding to the 1,150 police and gendarmes already present in the port.

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