Five migrants shot and wounded in huge Calais brawl

Five migrants were shot during a giant brawl in Calais, leaving four fighting for their lives Friday in what the French government called an “unbearable” escalation of violence in a port that serves as a gateway to Britain.

Twenty-two were hospitalised with injuries after three fights across the city, which 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, were in critical condition, they said.

Police were searching for a 37-year-old Afghan suspected of the shooting.

A number of other migrants sustained stab wounds in what Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, who visited the scene of one of the clashes near a food distribution point, called an “escalation of violence that has become unbearable for the people of Calais and the migrants”.

“The situation in Calais is extremely tense,” said our reporter Charlotte Boitiaux. “For months, it has been the policy of the French government to force these migrants out of sight. The migrants are hiding out in the woods in little encampments, in the most precarious conditions. They’re also subject to regular police harassment, their tents destroyed, their sleeping bags doused with tear gas, so they can’t settle in any one place.

Mafias are setting up in Calais, especially African mafias, and there are drug problems, alcohol problems. To top it all off, it’s the middle of winter. It’s a real powder keg.”

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.

Unprecedented levels of violence

Crucially, Macron did not seek to renegotiate a controversial 2003 deal effectively pushing Britain’s borders back onto French soil.

Collomb, who met with security force members and immigration officials in Calais, on Thursday accused the traffickers who charge the migrants hefty sums to secure passage to England, of “fuelling daily violence and brawls”.

“This is a level of violence never seen before,” he said.

He repeated that the government would not allow migrants settle in the area.

“The message I want to get across is that if you want to go to Britain, it’s not here you should come,” he said, adding that minors applying for asylum in Britain would be automatically moved to shelters around the country.

Clashes between migrants are a frequent occurrence in Calais, where newcomers live scattered in the woods, emerging at night to try waylay passing trucks.

The notorious Jungle, once home to some 10,000 people, was demolished in 2016, but hundreds more migrants have since descended on the city.

Shots were fired during the first fight Thursday between about 100 Eritreans and some 30 Afghans queueing for free meals at a distribution point near the town’s hospital at around 3:30 pm (1430 GMT).

The authorities suspect that traffickers mixed in with the crowd.

Shortly afterwards, a second fight broke out at an industrial site around five kilometres (three miles) away, with more than a hundred African migrants armed with iron rods and sticks setting on a group of around 20 Afghans, prosecutors said.

Police intervened to protect the Afghans, the authorities said.

No tolerance for economic migrants

Further violence broke out in the late afternoon at a third site.

Two police officers were injured during the clashes and security reinforcements were deployed.

In July, 16 people were injured in a brawl, one seriously.

Groups of migrants have also frequently clashed with the police, who systematically tear down their encampments and intervene to prevent them boarding trucks.

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 he touts as mixing “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.

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