Judges have condemned France for its ‘degrading and inhumane’ treatment of refugees in a scathing landmark ruling.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said the French authorities ‘had failed in their duties’ to support those who applied for asylum in the country, leaving them to sleep rough on the streets for months in ‘constant fear of being attacked or robbed’.
Its criticism came after three asylum-seekers accused the French government of failing to uphold its own domestic law which requires the state to provide basic necessities such as food and shelter while refugees await a decision on their asylum application.
French police detain a migrant during dismantling of makeshift shelter camp in Calais, France
The ECHR ordered the French government to pay a total of £32,000 in compensation to the three men.
News of the ruling comes as British and French charities accuse police in Calais of meting out violence to migrants, with the assaults said to be another factor persuading them to make the perilous journey across the Channel.
Aid workers claim French riot police now regularly raid migrant camps, slashing their tents with knives and confiscating their belongings.
The police have also been accused of attacking migrants on the streets, and videos posted on social media appear to show officers dragging migrants off buses.
Tensions grew to such an extent that a group of Eritrean refugees wrote an open letter listing eight alleged examples of violence by officers, including assaults that left migrants with broken limbs.
The ECHR case involved a Russian, an Afghan and an Iranian journalist who had to wait up to eight months before the French authorities acknowledged that they had lodged asylum applications.
Without such a formal acknowledgement, the men, who were not identified by the court, could not apply for housing or welfare payments and were at constant risk of deportation.
Judges heard how the Iranian, 46, slept rough on the streets of Paris for six months before being granted refugee status.
The Afghan, 27, slept under canal bridges in the capital for around eight months before he was finally granted access to shelter and a benefit known as ‘temporary allowance’.
The 30-year-old Russian slept rough in the South-West French town of Carcassonne for six months. Each of the men were forced to survive on handouts from charities.
In a blunt judgment, the ECHR ruled the ‘French authorities had failed in their duties towards the applicants’ under domestic law.
‘They had to be held responsible for the conditions in which the applicants had been living for several months: sleeping rough, without access to sanitary facilities, having no means of subsistence and constantly in fear of being attacked or robbed…
Man poses with placard as he attends a gathering called by migrant aid collective Appel d’Air to protest against administrative policies on migrants, which they claim translates into daily evacuatons of migrant camps and rising police brutality
‘The applicants had thus been victims of degrading treatment, showing a lack of respect for their dignity. It had aroused in them feelings of fear, anxiety and inferiority, likely to cause despair.’
It is not the first time that the ECHR has slammed the French government’s treatment of asylum seekers. Last February, judges ordered it to pay almost £15,000 to an Afghan migrant who, as a 12-year-old, had lived alone in a makeshift migrant camp in Calais.
French police have gradually stepped up efforts to clear migrant camps. Charities say that around 2,000 people live in either the Jungle camp in Calais, or in GrandeSynthe, an area outside Dunkirk, at any time.
The camps are used as a staging post for gangs to smuggle people to the UK in the back of trucks or in small boatss.
Poppy Cleary, a British aid coordinator with the charity L’Auberge des Migrants, said French police had doubled their raids on refugee camps in Calais in recent weeks. She claimed tents were destroyed and belongings, including clothes and medicines, confiscated.
‘They then bus the migrants out of Calais then leave them there, so they have to make their own way back,’ she alleged. ‘The police treatment is another factor why so many migrants are making the journey across the Channel.’
In one incident, two men, apparently African migrants, were filmed being dragged off buses in Calais by the police.
And in their letter, the Eritrean migrants said that the CRS [riot police] ‘don’t think we are humans… they started threatening our lives by beating us every time they get a chance’.
Last night, the French police in Calais and the French embassy in London were unavailable for comment.
But Calais MP Pierre-Henri Dumont defended the police and said ‘there is no link between the dismantlement and the crossings’, which he attributed to it being ‘easier for migrants to live clandestinely in the UK, to work and find a place to live, than in France.’
JOHN GRAY: Harsh measures meted out against migrants today contain sinister echoes from France’s past
When migrants attempt the hazardous journey by sea from France to Britain, they are not merely seeking a better standard of living.
They are fleeing to a country where they will not be exposed to the prejudice and mistreatment – sometimes brutal – that is their daily experience across the Channel.
Home Secretary Priti Patel is reported to have told colleagues that the migrants are coming here because they find France a racist country.
No doubt there will be those who point to cases when Britain, too, has behaved in a racist manner.
It is true that our record is hardly immaculate. The injustice suffered by the Windrush generation, for example, is a blot on our history.
The French suppress protests in the Algerian fight for independence where torture was used
But the Home Secretary’s claim should be taken seriously. French police treat migrants with a systematic inhumanity that would not be tolerated here.
And French racism, however shocking it might seem, is not at all new. Harsh measures meted out against migrants today contain sinister echoes from France’s past.
During the war for Algerian independence from 1954 to 1962, the French army used torture on a colossal scale.
Hundreds of thousands of Algerians – many of them civilians – were subjected to beatings, electric shocks and rape.
Old men, women and children were detained without trials or rights. Many people were abducted and disappeared forever.
France’s show of extreme brutality during the war in Algeria was not an isolated example. Rather it was consistent with a climate of abuse that existed throughout France’s African empire. Violence was an everyday occurrence.
Young men who were arrested were regularly assaulted. A common practice involved the police stamping on their feet so their toes were broken.
This might all seem a long time ago. But echoes of that racist chapter can be clearly heard in French politics today.
Take, for example, the continuing ambivalence towards France’s well-documented history of collaboration with its Nazi occupiers.
ONE of the worst episodes in 20th Century history occurred when French police organised the deportation of thousands of Jews – many of them, again, women and children – from an internment centre in Drancy, a North-Eastern suburb of Paris, to Nazi extermination camps.
The French authorities were active accomplices in this terrible crime.
Yet during the last presidential election in 2017 the far-Right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen shamefully denied any French responsibility for it, claiming the deportations were imposed on France by German occupying forces. It was a disgraceful stance.
Worse still, Le Pen was then supported by more than a third of French voters in the final run-off against Macron. The ugly yet unspoken fact is that French politics is riddled with racism.
No racist has achieved anything like this level of influence in Britain. Oswald Mosley never gained a seat in Parliament, and Enoch Powell was excluded from politics by his Conservative peers.
France has a long history of antisemitism. In 1894, at the start of what came to be known as the Dreyfus Affair, a French military officer of Jewish heritage was convicted of treason for allegedly passing on military secrets to Germany.
Sentenced to life imprisonment, Captain Alfred Dreyfus served five years on Devil’s Island in French Guyana.
Evidence quickly emerged of his innocence, while documents that supposedly incriminated him were shown to be forgeries.
Yet, as a result of a prolonged antisemitic campaign, it was more than ten years later before he was finally exonerated in 1906.
In Benjamin Disraeli, Britain had a Jewish Prime Minister decades before the Dreyfus Affair divided French politics for a generation.
Disraeli became leader of the Conservative party and ruled the country twice, in 1868 and 1874 to 1880.
It is accepted as entirely normal here that members of ethnic minorities have become national leaders.
Rishi Sunak, who has spoken about being at the same time British, Indian and Hindu, is widely discussed as a future Prime Minister. A practising Muslim, Sadiq Khan, is Mayor of London.
How long will it be before members of France’s Muslim, African and Asian communities achieve a similar standing?
Today, we are constantly reminded of the evils and crimes of the British Empire. We are attacked for looking back with nostalgia to our period of imperial power – an accusation for which there is, in fact, very little evidence.
Anything that smacks of Britain asserting a global role is condemned as reverting to the bad old days of colonialism.
Yet when Emmanuel Macron intervened in a former French territory – as he did when he made a visit to Lebanon earlier this month and declared ‘France will never let Lebanon go’ – there was not a squeak of protest in France.
Macron’s visit was staged as a Napoleonic triumph. The entire Lebanese political elite filed past him in the French embassy.
Plenty of Lebanese found the spectacle of Macron being paraded as their saviour to be patronising and offensive.
Britain is certainly not perfect. But in any balanced comparison with France, we stand up pretty well – as the boatloads of desperate people now trying to cross the Channel know from personal experience.
Their plight is real. Effective and humane solutions must somehow be found.
Yet while France lectures the world on ‘liberté, egalité and fraternité’, it blanks out its racist past and heaps indignities upon the migrants who feel driven to escape.
John Gray is Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics.