The constant cycle of displacement and destruction in northern France


By the Human Rights Observers team

There are currently around 900 displaced people living in Calais, and 500 in Grande-Synthe, a town near Dunkirk, northern France. Most of these people live outside in woodlands, wastelands and crumbling warehouses on the edges of the towns, with tents or tarpaulins as their only formal structure for protection against the winter weather and storms. Amongst these communities have been on average 10-16 families and single women at one time, and 150-160 unaccompanied minors (Calais) living outside so far in February 2020. In Calais, there are some services provided by the state, although not at every living site, whereas in Grande-Synthe there are no state provisions, except one water point provided by the municipality, which is used by people living outside for everything from drinking to ‘bathing’.

In both towns, there is little-to-no accommodation available. After the 2015-16 Calais jungle, the French government is determined not to see another formal camp, or ‘fixation point’ established.[i] It’s a way to prevent this: forced evictions. Since the end of 2018, forced evictions, carried out by French military and riot police, and often accompanied by border police, have drastically increased.[ii] The UNHCHR describes a forced eviction as a ‘permanent or temporary eviction, against their will and without any legal or appropriate protection, of any persons, families, or communities from their homes or the land they occupy’.



In August 2018, forced evictions in Calais became a daily occurrence. Since then each place of life, and therefore each person, has been evicted every two days, a routine which still continues today, and which resulted in 961 evictions in 2019 being observed by the Human Rights Observers (HRO) project.[iii] During these evictions, people are made to move their tents and all of their belongings off the area of land they are living, usually onto the side of a road.

Photo credit: Human Rights Observers

This displacement sometimes forces people to carry their tents as far as 300m, often causing damage to tents and belongings along the way. Other times, tents are displaced a mere 10m, without any obvious reason other than to harass the occupants. Once people have moved their tents, anything left behind is seized. This can be tents, blankets, firewood and even personal belongings such as phones, medicine and asylum documents.[iv] Things seized during these operations of harassment are often left behind because residents have gone to hospital, been taken to the detention centre, are simply at the breakfast distribution, or have been denied access to their tent by the police.



In Grande-Synthe, we observed 178 evictions in 2019. They are carried out weekly, making them less often than in Calais. However, during these evictions, people are not given the chance to move their tents out of the area. Tents are always seized and thrown away or destroyed, even if the occupant is present.

Photo credit: Human Rights Observers

On numerous occasions, HRO observers have also witnessed tents being destroyed and slashed with knives before they are thrown in a skip. Moreover, some living spaces have been destroyed with a chain saw. Each week, the evictions take place on a different day, resulting in uncertainty and insecurity as people try to anticipate which day they will be evicted that week. During 2019, we observed 161 people being arrested, some of which were given numbered bracelets to wear as identification, rather than being given an official police document.


Women, children and unaccompanied minors

These routine evictions affect not only men living outside, but also families with young children, single women and unaccompanied minors. During some evictions, police force families onto buses which take them to often inadequate accommodation centres, where they can only stay temporarily if they do not wish to claim asylum in France. Other evictions see single women and families displaced routinely without any accommodation solution.

Unaccompanied minors are displaced during most daily and weekly evictions, without the presence of social workers, despite Article L.111- 2 of the Code de l’action sociale et des familles stating that it is the obligation of French child protection services to be responsible for all vulnerable children, regardless of nationality. Since the start of 2020, a group of two 11-year-olds and two 15-year-olds travelling together have been evicted every 48 hours in Calais.

Photo credit: Project Play



These harassment operations have huge consequences on the mental/psychological wellbeing and physical health of people on the move. High police presence and being constantly displaced and at risk of having personal belongings seized or being arrested, creates a hostile environment of psychological pressure and harassment on people already vulnerable. It is hard for people to create community spaces and surroundings where they can feel safe and secure. When items such as phones are seized, this can cut the lifeline which people have to their families. Confiscated papers and asylum documents add another catch to the already tedious asylum process, sleep deprivation.

Photo credit: Human Rights Observers

Evictions always, with a few exceptions, take place in the mornings, meaning people are often woken up by the police shouting or shaking their tents. Other people wake up extra early so that they can leave before the police arrive. This reduces the amount of sleep a displaced person has, which a study in 2018 showed was on average between 4-5 hours per night. This constant cycle of confiscations also puts great strain on the associations providing tents, who can’t keep up with the numbers needed in the wake of daily evictions.

In Calais, it is not uncommon for people to sleep in shifts, as access to even a tent is limited. Ultimately, these increased evictions observed since 2018, make people more desperate to leave France and cross to the UK and can be put in parallel with an increased attempt in Channel boat crossings, which was over 2,700 in 2019, a 17-fold increase on 2016.[v] Whether people attempt to cross by boat or truck, often both in the hands of smugglers, it puts people in more dangerous situations and opens them up to exploitation. Women and children travelling alone are especially put at even more risk.



Routine evictions, and their veritable harassment, resulting in the further instability and insecurity of displaced people already facing inhumane living conditions on the France-UK border. The Défenseur des droits (Defender of Rights, French ombudsman) has denounced the vague legal framework of the operations[vi], and after a visit to northern France, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, recommended that “France must place a moratorium on all forced evictions” and “prohibit the repeated and systematic evictions of persons living in tents and informal settlements resulting in inhuman or degrading treatment”.[vii]


[i] Amnesty public statement December 2019

[ii] Report – Forced Evictions in Calais and Grande-Synthe




[vi] Exilés et droits fondamentaux, trois ans après le rapport Calais. Défenseur des droits, December 2018, 56

[vii] End of mission statement UN Special Rapporteur April 2019


The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.









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