A video that purportedly shows several incidents of French police acting aggressively in the northern port town of Calais is raising questions about the country's treatment of migrants at a time when the government is urging individuals who have fled violence in Africa and the Middle East to claim asylum rather than attempt an illicit border crossing into the United Kingdom.
Released Sunday by Calais Migrant Solidarity, an advocacy group that monitors what it describes as "police harassment" of migrants, the video shows officers forcing people out of UK-bound trucks and pushing them over a roadside guardrail. Most of the footage was reportedly shot on May 5, the day after French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve visited the "New Jungle," a makeshift refugee camp outside of Calais where some 2,000 migrants were forced to relocate to after police drove them out of other camps in the spring.
As unprecedented numbers of migrants continue to flee war, persecution, and poverty and make the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean, Calais has received a huge influx of individuals seeking to continue across the English Channel to apply for asylum in the UK.
Contacted by VICE News, Calais Migrant Solidarity referred questions to a spokesman who declined to give his full name, identifying himself as "Leo." Describing himself as an activist who also volunteers with the police watchdog Hotline Against Violence, Leo told VICE News that the bulk of the clip was filmed "with one camera, on May 5, around 8am, on the side of the A216 highway to the port in Calais, during rush hour."
Leo said the video, which is interspersed with excerpts from Cazeneuve's May 4 speech, including the interior minister's remark that claiming asylum in France is the "best hope" for migrants, illustrates "the discrepancy between the political discourse on migration and the reality."
Not all images contained in the video were shot on one day and in one location. "The scene where one of the riot police officers sprays a migrant with tear gas was shot the same day but elsewhere on the A16 highway, outside the Eurotunnel," Leo said.
Text in the video says police routinely chase and intimidate cameramen who try to document the abuse of migrants. One scene was recorded on the A16 on April 22, according to Leo, and shows police chasing a cameraman and throwing him to the ground. Leo claims police erased images and contacts from the cameraman's mobile phone, attempted to wipe his camera's memory card, and stole his tripod.
According to Leo, police were unaware they were being filmed on May 5. "This time, the images were shot with a powerful lens. And apparently, the riot police didn't spot the cameraman," he said. Leo also claimed that officers frequently destroy camera equipment, leading most police abuse to go unreported.
Local authorities in Calais declined to comment on the footage, and said the General Inspectorate of the National Police (GINP) is leading an investigation into the incidents shown. Asked to comment about allegations that police officers regularly confiscate or destroy video equipment, a Pas-de-Calais prefecture said "no formal complaints had been lodged," and invited any victims to come forward.
"Law enforcement officers are doing their job and following protocol, and while the GINP has recorded some breaches, these are few and far between," the prefecture said.
Ludovic Hochart, a representative for France's UNSA police union, told local daily La Voix du Nord, "Once again, all you see are short video clips." He added that "usually, when you see the whole [video], it turns out the intervention was justified."
According to radio network France Info, French human rights defender Jacques Toubon has opened an investigation into Calais police abuse of migrants. French government ombudsman Dominique Baudis also criticized the treatment of migrants by Calais cops in 2012, stating that "checks," "visits," "destructions," and "evictions" were routinely conducted outside of a legal framework.
Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter : @MatthieuJublin