The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, said on Friday that it welcomed plans to demolish a refugee camp in Calais in northern France, but raised fears that lone children were at risk of trafficking if not adequately supported during the transition.
The ramshackle camp has become a symbol of Europe's struggle to respond to an influx of refugees and migrants fleeing war and poverty, and is home to nearly 9,000 people who want to cross the English Channel into Britain, just 33km away.
President Francois Hollande said last month that France would completely shut down "the Jungle" by the end of the year. The plan is to relocate migrants in small groups around the country, largely removing the option of forging a new life in Britain.
"This is welcome ... the Jungle site has been problematic for a number of years, and UNHCR has long recommended it be closed," the agency's spokesman Adrian Edwards said at a news briefing in Geneva.
"Living conditions are appalling, with the most basic shelter, inadequate hygiene facilities, very poor security and a lack of basic services."
|An Afghan family leaves the 'Jungle' as part of a weekly voluntary re-settlement convoy distributing migrants and refugees from the camp around France before it is dismantled [Reuters]
He said asylum seekers and migrants should be informed of when the dismantling would begin, and said the French government must organise appropriate accommodation for those leaving the camp.
Edwards said it was also crucial to ensure lone children in Calais were supervised during the demolition, as they are vulnerable to being trafficked, abused or exploited.
"This is important so that children don't move on to other destinations and risk becoming exploited by human traffickers or end up living on the streets without any support," he said in a statement, urging British authorities to reunite eligible children with their relatives in the UK.
An estimated 1,200 unaccompanied children are currently living in the Jungle, of which about 180 have been identified as having family ties to Britain.
Britain's anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland has warned that children were turning to smuggling gangs rather than official routes to claim asylum or to join relatives in Britain as he called for ministers to do more to help lone youngsters.
Earlier in the week, Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the UK would honour a commitment to take in children from the camp and urged Paris to help speed up the process.
|Demonstrators face off with French riot police during a protest near the area called the "Jungle" on October 1 [Reuters]
Charities working in the Jungle said earlier this week before a meeting with France's Interior Ministry that the plan to dismantle the site and disperse the occupants wouldn't work.
Homeless charity Emmaus asked for closure to be postponed because "all conditions are not met for an efficient humanitarian operation to take place".
"The government is heading straight into a wall," Emmaus France President Thierry Kuhn said. "We should not bury our heads in the sand; people will come back as long as we won't be able to offer them a situation adapted to their life plan."
Head of Catholic charity Secours Catholique in the Calais area Vincent de Coninck is also adamant that the port city will remain a transit point to Britain.
"Exiled people will return tomorrow," de Coninck said.
Earlier this month, the head of the government's human rights watchdog, Jacques Toubon, expressed concerns about the planned demolition.
Dismantling the slum "will further weaken vulnerable people's lives and drive them away from the protection they are entitled to by their fundamental rights", Toubon said in a statement.
Source: News Agencies