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French police clear migrant camp
French police begin operation to clear "jungle" camp of migrants headed to Britain.
Last Modified: 22 Sep 2009 13:45 GMT
Migrants camped near Calais are preparing to see their makeshift homes destroyed by police [AFP]

French police have begun clearing hundreds of mainly Afghan immigrants from a makeshift camp known as "the jungle" near the port town of Calais.

About a dozen vehicles carrying riot police arrived at the site on Tuesday morning and began moving the migrants to detention centres.

The move to take down the makeshift housing around the port is designed to halt migrants without papers from getting into Britain, and to crack down on smuggling networks that assist them, officials said.

The illegal camp is expected to be demolished by the end of the week.

Al Jazeera's Nadim Baba, reporting from the makeshift camp near Calais, said: "The police did move in - in large numbers, and isolated the mainly Afghan migrants one by one before fingerprinting them.

"We've been told they are being taken by bus to a centre near to Calais before they are dispersed to other holding centres ... Where they will be held and for how long is not known.

"The non-governmental organisations have told us the operation has gone very badly and are surprised with the way the police handled the situation," he said.

'Nowhere to go'

One resident, Bashir, a 24-year-old English teacher from northern Afghanistan, told the AFP news agency he had paid $15,000 (€10,000) to travel to Europe through Pakistan and Istanbul.

He said: "We have no idea what the police will do, if they will take us or let us go free.

"But here we already made our place. We have our houses, our showers and our mosque," he added.

In depth

  Video: Immigrants camp demolished

Juma, a 25-year-old from the Baglan region of Afghanistan who arrived in the camp last month after he was evicted from a migrant camp in a Paris park, said: "This is our home now.

"We have nowhere else to go. We spent everything we had getting here and have no way to leave."

William Spindler, spokesman for the UN refugee agency in France, told Al Jazeera he believes the immigrants should be allowed to claim asylum in France.
 
"They should be given the opportunity to claim asylum in France and this is our main concern, particularly in the case of children," he said.

"We believe the answer to this situation is a common European approach in which all countries ... [should] give them the opportunity to receive international protection.

"In many cases these people have come this far, taking huge risks to their lives, without actually having had the opportunity to claim asylum or find protection anywhere."

Police crackdown

Refugee groups have urged the UK to take some of the asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and other troubled nations, trying to cross the English Channel.

But Britain has ruled out taking them in, with UK home secretary Alan Johnson saying genuine refugees should apply for asylum in the country where they entered the EU.

The "jungle" has been home to up to 1,500 mainly Afghan migrants [AFP]
Those who were not escaping persecution should return home, Johnson said, adding he was "delighted" with the closure of the camp.

Speaking after talks in Brussels with his French counterpart Eric Besson, Johnson said reports that Britain could be "forced" to take illegal immigrants were "wrong".

French immigration minister Eric Besson has said an "individual solution" will be found for each migrant cleared from the camp - whether a voluntary return home, an asylum request or expulsion - and said there would be no forced returns to unsafe countries.

EU justice commissioner Jacques Barrot has reportedly demanded a change in European law to allow a "significant number" to be fast-tracked into Britain.

Aid groups say the crackdown will simply push migrants further underground, making them more vulnerable to traffickers and criminal gangs.

But French officials say the Calais "jungle" has become a haven for people-smuggling gangs and a no-go zone for local residents, with appalling sanitary conditions.

Scattered people

From a peak of 700 mostly Afghan Pashtuns based in the "jungle" in June, aid groups say two thirds have fled since the government indicated it would close the camp in April.

"Most have left for Britain, Belgium, Holland or Norway, the others have scattered into thin air," said Thomas Suel of Terre d'Errance, one of a coalition of local aid groups.

Vincent Lenoir, of the Salam migrant support group, said that of those who remained many were minors who could not be deported, or others "who simply don't have the money or connections to leave".

Lenoir estimates that 1,000 migrants managed to slip into Britain over a fortnight in late August and early September - following months of a clampdown by border police.

'Magnet for migrants'

He believes the departures suggests Paris and London reached a "deal" to clear "the jungle" of migrants before closing it down for good.

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 heading for Britain.

Paris has said it is determined to "choke off" the pattern drawing migrants to the Channel port, and crack down on human-trafficking, with dozens of squats being closed and more operations to follow.

While about 170 people have applied for asylum in Calais since June, many are unwilling to, with aid groups saying that Britain offers fairer treatment to would-be refugees.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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