France to close Calais camp, relocate refugees in weeks

French President Francois Hollande calls camp conditions “unacceptable”, sets out plan to move 9,000 refugees in weeks.

French President Francois Hollande visits the national firemen''s congress in Tours
Hollande said France must show it is "capable of being dignified, humane and responsible" [Stephane Mahe/Reuters]

French President Francois Hollande has confirmed plans to close the Calais refugee camp in northern France, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for Europe to secure deals with third countries to assist in the return of migrants.

Crisis in Calais

Hollande said on Saturday that he hopes authorities can relocate as many as 9,000 refugees from the Calais camp, known as “the Jungle”, to reception centres across France in the coming weeks.

Speaking during a visit to one of France’s 164 reception centres in the city of Tours, Hollande said conditions in the Calais camp are “not acceptable … especially for those who fled war to get there”.

Hollande, who is to visit Calais on Monday, insisted that “we cannot have such camps in France”.

He said his country must show it is “capable of being dignified, humane and responsible”.

READ MORE: UK slated over planned anti-refugee wall in Calais

The reception centres will hold 40-50 people for up to four months while authorities study their cases, Hollande said. People who do not seek asylum will be deported, he added.

Half of the Calais camp was dismantled in March but its population has since doubled. Hollande previously promised to shut down the camp by the end of the year, but did not give a firm timeline.

The plan to relocate the refugees to towns across France has prompted vehement protests from many local conservative and far-right politicians, who say they fear the consequences of having refugees in their towns.

Hollande indirectly criticised that resistance and called for more solidarity, noting that neighbouring Germany had taken in one million people, compared with the 9,000 that will be relocated from Calais.

Balkan leaders meet in Vienna to discuss refugee crisis

Separately, Merkel on Saturday called for Europe to secure deals with third countries to send back “migrants” who do not “qualify for asylum”.

Speaking after talks in Vienna with leaders of countries along the so-called Balkan refugee trail into Europe, the German chancellor said the continent must “stop illegal immigration while living up to our humanitarian responsibilities”.

To that end, “it is necessary to get agreements with third countries, especially in Africa but also Pakistan and Afghanistan. .. so that it becomes clear that those with no right to stay in Europe can go back to their home countries”, she told reporters.

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Last year, hundreds of thousands of people, many fleeing the Syrian war, trekked from Greece through the western Balkans to northern Europe, in the continent’s biggest refugee crisis since 1945.

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In March, the European Union struck a deal with Turkey, home to more than three million refugees, under which Ankara promised to halt the flow into Europe in return for billions in aid. 

The difficulties of making it to the Balkans, especially after the EU’s deal with Turkey, is thought to be prompting increasing numbers to takes to boats and attempt to cross treacherous waters from Libya or Egypt to Italy.

More than 300,000 refugees have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, the UN said on Tuesday. Around 3,500 have perished in the attempt. On Friday more than 160 drowned off Egypt.

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Speaking also after the Vienna meeting, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that the EU should set up a “giant refugee city” on the Libyan coast and process asylum claims from refugees arriving from Africa there, and with the help of a new Libyan government.

Without giving many details, Orban said the EU’s external borders should be under “total control” – including the Mediterranean border, in which Libya is instrumental.

Orban, who has been scathing about Merkel’s “open-door” policy and has called immigration “poison”, has refused to take in a single refugee under the EU relocation scheme.

Hungary has been widely criticised for its way of handling the flow of refugees to Europe.

In July, Human Rights Watch accused Hungarian police and soldiers of severely beaten refugees and migrants before sending them back across the border to Serbia. 

In its report, the rights group also said that Hungary was failing to comply with international standards regarding asylum-seekers.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies