CALAIS, Feb 2 — Four migrants were fighting for their lives today after being shot during a giant brawl in Calais, in what the French government called an “intolerable” escalation of violence in a port that serves as a gateway to Britain.
Twenty-two people were hospitalised with injuries after three fights across the city on Thursday that drew in hundreds of the migrants camped out in the hope of stowing away on a truck bound for England, according to officials.
Four Eritreans, who were shot in the neck, chest, abdomen and spine at a food distribution point, were still in critical condition Friday, they said. A fifth who was also shot was not facing life-threatening injuries.
Police were searching for a 37-year-old Afghan, a suspected migrant smuggler, over the attack but the prosecutor’s office in the nearby town of Boulogne-sur-Mer said witnesses reported seeing several people fire shots.
“It’s a bit hazy,” an official at the prosecutor’s office said.
A number of other migrants sustained stab wounds in the melees sparked by the incident.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, who visited the scene, said the recurring brawls had become “intolerable for the people of Calais and the migrants” and told those with dreams of Britain to stay away.
The violence comes two weeks after President Emmanuel Macron visited Calais with a message of zero tolerance on migrants setting up camps like the sprawling “Jungle” which was razed in 2016.
He later travelled to Britain, where Prime Minister Theresa May agreed to pay more to help stop migrants trying to reach England’s shores and to take in more unaccompanied minors.
Crucially, Macron did not seek to renegotiate a controversial 2003 deal effectively pushing Britain’s borders back onto French soil.
Collomb blamed the tensions on the smugglers who reportedly charge as much as 2,500 euros to get migrants onto trucks crossing the Channel by ferry or through the Eurotunnel.
“These networks must be broken up,” he said Friday, announcing police reinforcements for the area.
The Calais ‘wall’
Shots were fired during the first fight yesterday afternoon between about 100 Eritreans and some 30 Afghans queuing for free meals at a distribution point near the town’s hospital.
“There were migrants who had no money, the smugglers got angry and fired shots,” an 18-year-old Afghan migrant who gave his name as Daniel told AFP while queuing in near-zero temperatures for tea and bread Friday at a distribution point in an industrial estate.
Shortly afterwards, over 100 Eritreans armed with iron rods and sticks attacked a group of around 20 Afghans at the industrial estate, prosecutors said.
Police intervened to protect the Afghans, the authorities said.
Further violence broke out late in the afternoon at a third site.
Two police officers were injured during the clashes.
Collomb appealed to migrants to stay away from Calais — long a jump-off point for illegal Channel crossings — saying the government would not allow them settle there.
Calling Calais “a wall which the migrants are slamming into” he said: “The message I want to get across is that if you want to go to the UK, it’s not here you should come.”
The notorious Jungle, once home to about 10,000 people, was demolished in 2016, but hundreds more migrants have since descended on the city.
Mainly young African and Afghan men, they hide from the police in camps in the woods, emerging at night to try to waylay passing trucks.
The police systematically tear down their encampments and use tear gas and batons to chase them away when they try to hold up truckers.
The grim conditions, made worse by a particularly wet winter, have led to tensions between groups of migrants from different regions that sometimes spills over into violence.
In July, 16 people were injured in a brawl, one seriously.
Macron has taken an unbending line towards those dubbed economic migrants because they are not fleeing war or persecution.
He has vowed to step up deportations while speeding up waiting times for bona fide asylum seekers — an approach which he says mixes “humanity” and “efficiency”.
Polls show the French supporting his approach but leftist parties, intellectuals and NGOs have been critical.
A former key adviser Jean Pisani-Ferry was among those who signed a hard-hitting open letter recently, accusing the centrist president of betraying his image as a humanist. — AFP