France defends operation to close migrant 'jungle' in Calais
France on Thursday defended its decision to close a makeshift migrant camp known as "The Jungle" as the UN refugee body warned it had a duty towards people fleeing the world's war zones.
Immigration Minister Eric Besson has announced that police will move in by the end of next week to clear out the notorious zone near the Channel port of Calais, where hundreds of migrants gather to try to gain passage to Britain.
Officials say the camp has become a haven for people-smuggling gangs and a no-go zone for locals, with appalling sanitary conditions blamed for an outbreak of scabies in the past few months.
"This will put an end to a lawless situation which had become unbearable for local people," said Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart, who has denounced a spike in "serious offences" against residents in recent weeks.
Thousands of mostly male migrants, from Afghanistan, Iraq and other troubled and impoverished nations, have headed to Calais in the past decade to try and jump on a ferry or a train crossing the Channel tunnel to Britain.
A French state official in Calais, Ivan Bouchner, said France was determined to "choke off the migratory pattern" drawing migrants to the Channel port.
"The state is here to protect the people of Calais and its region," he said, complaining that the Jungle was fuelling a wave of theft and vandalism, with local gardens trashed and animals stolen for food.
He said the closure operation had been planned for six months as part of a crackdown on human-trafficking in the area, with dozens of migrant squats closed and more operations to come.
"The aim is to send the message that you can't cross the Channel in Calais and to hit at the traffickers' logistics base."
Immigration ministry officials say the number of migrants in the area has already been cut from 700 three months ago to around 300, and that 170 people had made requests for asylum in France rather than heading on to Britain.
But William Spindler, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Calais, warned that France had a duty towards migrants from conflict-ridden areas of the world.
"We understand the French authorities' position. The living conditions for migrants in these camps are unacceptable," Spindler said.
"But if we close 'The Jungle', it is important that the migrants are given a chance to apply for asylum, in particular those who come from Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan," he added.
French authorities operated a centre for migrants at Sangatte, near Calais but closed it in 2002 because of crime and accusations from London that it was acting as a magnet for migrants headed for Britain.
But aid groups warned the camp closure will not stop migrants congregating in Calais.
"It is ridiculous," Friar Jean-Pierre Boutoille, of the C-Sur coalition of aid groups, told AFP. "When they get out of 'The Jungle', the Afghans are just going to move 100 or 200 metres away."
A spokesman for the British border control agency said: "The decision to close illegal encampments in and around Calais, and the timing of these operations, are matters for the French government.”
"The UK supports action to tackle illegal immigration and to break up trafficking routes."