CALAIS, FRANCE – Makeshift huts went up in flames on Monday in an angry backlash as workers, guarded by scores of French police, began pulling down tents and shelters in the sprawling
“Jungle” migrant camp in Calais.
Police lobbed tear gas in a brief clash with pro-migrant activists and others throwing projectiles at officers forming a security cordon to protect the tear-down operation.
There were no reports of injuries. At least three people were arrested, authorities said.
As tension mounted, the fragile structures in a southern part of the camp came down one by one and heavy equipment was moved in to scoop up the rubble and junk left behind by weary migrants dreaming of a new life in Britain.
Three makeshift homes went up in flames, the fires set either by upset migrants or pro-migrant activists, according to Gilles Debove of the Unite SGP Police FO union, who acts as a police spokesman.
A second larger fire, apparently spread by wind, destroyed a mass of shelters.
At least three people described as pro-migrant activists from the No Borders group were arrested, Debove said.
The prefecture said the arrests were made for pelting police with stones and setting fires. The No Borders group, which wants all borders removed, is often blamed by authorities for fanning tensions.
A flash-point on the edge of the Channel, the camp sprang up less than a year ago in the port city, which has both ferries and the Eurotunnel rail route to Britain. It has grown explosively in past months amid Europe’s migrant crisis, fueling far-right sentiment in both Britain and France. About 4,000 people are estimated to live in the camp — down from 6,000 in December.
Calais has lived with migrants in its midst for years, but the current camp on the city’s edge sprang up around a day center opened last April by the state — and after small camps inside the city were bulldozed. The dismantling of the dense southern portion of the current camp would be the largest such operation the city has known.
Authorities say 800-1,000 migrants are affected by the evictions. Humanitarian groups contend more than 3,000 are affected.
French authorities are offering to relocate uprooted migrants into heated containers installed last month nearby, or at centers around France where they can decide whether to apply for asylum. Many have resisted the move, fearing it will hurt their chances of reaching Britain, and migrant advocates say there isn’t enough space in the new area.
Two buses carrying 43 migrants left on Friday for Bordeaux and Montpellier, the prefecture said.
Scores of riot police stood guard, keeping journalists and volunteers out as helmeted workers tackled the shelters one by one.
Prefect Fabienne Buccio, who had ordered the camp evacuated and dismantled in February, showed up as the operation began. Her office decried “intimidation” tactics by some activists who she said were manipulating migrants into refusing to accept government offers of shelter.
“Really three houses out of four — I mean three huts out of four, or three tents out of four — were already totally abandoned with a lot of garbage inside,” she said. Migrants, she said, “had the time necessary to gather their belongings. The rest was good enough to throw away.”
However, cameras zooming into huts captured scenes of daily life fully intact.
The start of what is expected to be a weeks-long operation came four days after a court ruled that shelters could come down — but not common areas like houses of worship, a school, a women’s center and library, much of it built with the help of French and British volunteers appalled by conditions in the makeshift camp.
Humanitarian groups and migrants who had contested the state decision to level the most populous sector of the camp appealed the ruling on Friday with the Council of State, but any decision is likely to take weeks or months, long after the camp is gone.
As the clashes broke out between French riot police and migrants, two bulldozers stood by but were not used.
Migrants and members of the British No Borders group, who launched projectiles at the police, also set fire to about 20 of the shelters, according to an AFP photographer and running clashes continued late into the afternoon.
Three members of No Borders and one migrant were arrested, according to local government officials.
The demolition of the southern half of the camp began after a court petition by charities to stop it was rejected last week.
“It’s infinitely sad to see the waste of so much work that we’ve done in the past months,” said Maya Konforti of the Auberge des Migrants (Migrants’ Hostel) charity.
Volunteers and aid workers have spent months trying to improve conditions in the camp, built on a former toxic waste dump on the outskirts of Calais.
Local authorities, who have promised that no one will be evacuated by force, say 3,700 people live in the camp, and that between 800 and 1,000 will be affected by the eviction.
But charities say a recent census they conducted counted at least 3,450 people in the southern part alone, including 300 unaccompanied children.
The evicted migrants have been offered heated accommodation in refitted containers set up next door to the camp, but many are reluctant to move there because they lack communal spaces and movement is restricted.
They have also been offered places in some 100 reception centers dotted around France.
However, the migrants do not want to give up their hopes of Britain, which they try to reach daily by sneaking aboard trucks and ferries crossing the Channel.
“These people want to reach Britain and won’t leave. They will end up in even more hardship, particularly in winter,” Konforti said.
The demolition of the Jungle comes ahead of talks on Thursday between French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Britain has put substantial pressure on France to stem the flow of migrants getting across the Channel, and has funded a huge increase in security measures around the port and tunnel in Calais.
The Jungle has played into fraught discussions about Britain’s possible exit from the European Union (EU).
Some opponents of “Brexit” say that if Britain were to leave the EU, the British government would lose the ability to call on France to stop the refugees from trying to make their way across the Channel.
“We are carrying out our orders so that the migrants leave the camp and we will continue this work this morning … so that the destruction work can continue calmly and that the migrants are not under pressure from the No Borders activists,” said local authority head Fabienne Buccio on Monday.
She accused No Borders activists of threatening staff who had been sent to the camp on Friday in a bid to convince migrants to leave the camp for official shelters.
Buccio said three-quarters of the shacks in the southern half of the camp were now empty after a French court approved the demolition on Thursday.
The migrants in Calais make up a tiny fraction of those fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
They try to climb on to trucks boarding ferries for Britain, which they are drawn to by family or community ties, because of a shared language, or because they think they have a greater chance of finding work there.