The city of Calais, France has been labeled a “war zone” for more than a year now, as violence between competing factions of African migrant smugglers threatens to engulf the city and its economy. As the EU demands France take in 9,000 more migrants, officials doubt the country could keep the peace in that scenario.
The latest brawl to engulf Calais on Sunday has resulted in 14 people hospitalized and 24 injured, in a melee that witnesses claim involved “hundreds” of people. Authorities claim the fighting involved not only fists, but impromptu weapons such as knives and wooden bats.
Those involved in the fighting are believed to have been members of the rival Sudanese and Eritrean communities that live in tents in a makeshift migrant camp in the city; the fighting began after a member of one group burnt a tent belonging to the other group to the ground. The UK’s Channel 4 notes that a separate incident occurred on Thursday in which an Eritrean migrant was shot on the way to Boulogne, triggering violent disputes between Eritreans and the Sudanese, but a spokesperson for the city of Calais claimed that incident had nothing to do with the major brawl on Sunday.
La Voix du Norde, a regional paper, reported that the fires were as much a challenge to authorities as the fighting, and estimated the number of people in the clashes as between two to three hundred. The large number of people and makeshift design of the tent camp made reaching the fires extremely difficult, so much so that authorities only succeeded in putting out the fire on Monday morning, after arrests had been made and people taken to the hospital.
Video shows French riot police struggling to control the crowd:
Partly in response to the riot on Sunday, police broke up two tent camps in Calais on Monday, one particularly close to the Channel Tunnel — and close to lorries that migrants routinely try to sneak into to enter the UK. Police also broke up a giant tent camp under a bridge in Paris.
Calais, the Agence-France Presse reports, currently houses 2,300 migrants in these tent communities, mostly from Sudan, Eritrea, and Syria. Calais has become a focal point for the migrant crisis threatening to engulf France and, on a greater scale, Europe itself, as it provides to hopeful migrants proximity to the United Kingdom. Most of the fighting in Calais migrant community is a product of rival smugglers attempting to control the routes to the lorries that travel from Calais to England. Migrants eager to leave France, hoping for a more accommodating economic atmosphere in the UK, storm lorries en route to England, hindering traffic between the countries and weakening the Calais economy.
As the Daily Mail notes, French officials have tried to dissuade migrants from trying to reach the UK, instead encouraging them to try to find work in France. “We must make them understand clearly that asylum in France offers the best change for them,” urged French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve in May.
The mayor of Calais, Natasha Bouchart, has been sounding the alarm for her city for months, blaming the UK for not doing enough to discourage migrants from using her city as a launchpad into Britain. “Calais is a hostage to the British. The migrants come here to get to Britain. The situation here is barely manageable,” she said in May. The UK government gave Calais £12 million to use in settling migrants in October 2014, but it has done little to solve the problem. At the time, the number of migrants in Calais was estimated at 2,500.
On the other side of the Channel, the British are calling for the national French government to work harder to keep migrants from leaving. “The UK Government really must insist on greater proactive involvement by the responsible French authorities,” said Freight Transport Association representative Donald Armour this week.
While France and the UK continue to fail to resolve their migrant challenges, the European Union is demanding France take in another 9,000 refugees, to help assuage the economic woes facing Italy and Greece as thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East hit their shores every week. France has adamantly refused to take in such a high number, issuing a joint statement with Germany stating that the number should take into consideration the number of migrants that each country has already taken in and tried to accommodate. Germany has been asked to relocated 12,000 migrants. While astronomical, the numbers pale in comparison to the thousands that are actually reaching European shores on a weekly basis. It is estimated that Italy and Greece received 220,000 migrants in 2014 alone, and 2015 appears to already be setting migration records.