A 20-year-old Eritrean woman who died after being hit by a car on a motorway in Calais last Friday morning was fleeing police who had used teargas against her, migrant groups working in the area have said.
The young woman was hit by a car in the early hours of Friday morning as she tried to cross the motorway leading to the Eurotunnel freight terminal. Media reports have described the death as an accident, but a blog post on the website of Calais Migrant Solidarity, a French police watchdog, reports that other migrants who witnessed the incident told them the police used teargas against the woman and the group she was with to force them out from a lorry they had been hiding in. The gas left the woman temporarily blinded, leaving her unable to properly see traffic as she tried to cross the motorway, the group says.
There are around 3,000 migrants trying to reach the UK living around Calais, which has seen squalid camps spring up in recent years. This is the eighth death of a migrant to have occurred in the last seven weeks at Calais. 15 migrants died in the area during the whole of last year, according to activists.
Calais Migrant Solidarity, which monitors police treatment of migrants in Calais, accused local police in a blog post of endangering the lives of migrants in Calais on a daily basis, by threatening them with beatings, teargas and even driving them out of Calais, leaving them to walk back along the busy motorways.
Maya Konforti, a volunteer for the aid group l'Auberge des Migrants, based in Calais, told Newsweek she spoke with several people travelling with the young woman who confirmed Calais Migrant Solidarity's account of the incident.
Konforti said the incident occurred in the early hours of the morning, as the group, mostly comprised of women, tried to board a lorry travelling across the Channel to the UK. "Of course they were all tired from not sleeping, and on top of that they got gassed by police, and very heavily, apparently," Konforti told Newsweek. "This is something that contributed to the accident."
"When you get gassed, your eyes burn, you can't see anything, you are scared and you want to run away and this is how it happened," Konforti says.
Representatives of the Calais police and the French Ministry for the Interior, responsible for policing in France, did not respond to Newsweek's requests for comment, although the French government in the past has denied allegations of police violence against migrants.
Konforti says she has received a number of reports of migrants being teargassed by police in an effort to prevent them from trying to hide on lorries heading towards the UK. "It can get pretty horrible," she says, adding that many migrants now carry small bottles of saline solution in case teargas is used against them.
Philippe Wanesson, an activist whose blog, Passeurs d'Hospitalité monitors the number of deaths of migrants and refugees at Calais, believes that the reports by the activists are credible, and says that the police use "a lot of gas in this context, so that people don't get too close to the lorries."
In May, Calais Migrant Solidarity obtained footage that appeared to show French officers kicking and beating migrants on the motorway leading to the Calais ferry port. Police are seen spraying teargas at close range at migrants walking along the road.
The French government has repeatedly denied allegations of police violence against migrants in Calais, although an internal investigation was opened by the government in May concerning the footage.
In a report published in January, Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the "abuse and harassment" of migrants in the area, allegedly perpetrated by French police, which the group said included "beatings and attacks with pepper spray as the migrants and asylum seekers walked in the street or hid in trucks in the hope of traveling to the United Kingdom."
The police denied to HRW that excessive violence against migrants had been used, although they said that any allegations would be investigated.Try Newsweek: Subscription offers