France bulldozes migrant 'jungle'

23rd September 2009, Comments 0 comments

French riot police rounded up scores of Afghan migrants on Tuesday and bulldozed a makeshift camp called the "jungle" used as a base for migrants to sneak across the Channel to Britain.

Scuffles broke out between police and some 80 rights activists who set up a human chain around the camp dwellers in the northern port of Calais, but the migrants did not resist as they were led away one by one.

Immigration Minister Eric Besson, who flew to Calais to oversee the operation, said that 276 people, half of them minors, were detained in the two-hour raid that began at dawn and involved 500 officers.

After the migrants were removed, bulldozers moved in to flatten shacks and tents that dotted the sandy scrubland on the edge of town.

Besson hailed the operation as a major blow to smuggling networks.

Britain, which last year stopped 28,000 migrants trying to cross the 35 kilometres (22 miles) that separate it from France, hailed the crackdown as "decisive."

But rights activists denounced it as a media stunt that would not stop migrants heading to Calais and instead drive them further underground as they waited to climb onto boats or trucks taking the undersea tunnel to Britain.

The UN refugee agency said the dismantling of the "jungle" did not address the problem of "irregular migration, nor does it solve the problems of the people concerned."

France's Besson warned of more raids to come on nearby squats and camps.

"This is the end of the law of the jungle and of people-traffickers," he told reporters as he toured the site.

The camp's makeshift mosque was taken down by hand and Besson said its contents would be transferred to the Calais mosque.

The police operation "targeted the tools of the criminal gangs who sell migrants passage to Britain, exploit them and have them living in what had become an open air garbage dump," he said.

Nearly half the migrants identified themselves as minors and were to be taken to shelters, he said. The adults will be offered the chance to apply for asylum, money for a voluntary return home or a place in a shelter.

For adults who refuse, France would "consider a forced return to the country of origin", based on an assessment of the security risks.

From a peak of 700 predominantly Afghan dwellers in the "jungle" in June, aid groups say two thirds had fled ahead of the operation, heading to Britain, Belgium, Holland, Norway or elsewhere.

The remaining dwellers rose at dawn with the muezzin's call, performing morning ablutions before bracing for the raid.

The men and boys huddled together behind banners that pleaded with the authorities for shelter, but were led away, some in tears.

Eighteen-year-old Bilal Hazarbauz said: "Maybe they will deport me to Afghanistan.

"But where else can we go? This is our home, there is no other place."

Thousands of mainly male migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq and other troubled nations, have headed to Calais in the past decade to try to jump on a truck, ferry or a train crossing to Britain.

The "jungle" sprang up after the authorities closed a shelter at Sangatte, near Calais, in 2002 because of crime and British accusations that it was a magnet for migrants.

But activists were furious at the camp's closure.

"It's a scandal," said Jean-Claude Lenoir of the Salam migrant support group. "We can't have soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and treat Afghans seeking refuge here with such little dignity."

From Saint Malo in Brittany to the Belgian border, some 17 migrant camps and squats along the Channel coast, where hundreds of Iraqis, Afghans or Eritreans await their attempt at the British El Dorado, according to aid groups.


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