The French president has said a refugee camp in Calais, known as the Jungle, must be “completely dismantled” days after he pledged to relocate thousands of refugees.
“The situation is unacceptable and everyone here knows it. We must dismantle the camp completely and definitively,” Francois Hollande said on Monday after visiting the northern French town near the border with Britain.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Calais, said the French president met city officials, charities and police to discuss his plan under which some 9,000 refugees will be relocated to different shelters and centres across the country.
“They will be moved off in small groups of 40-50 people. They will be given four months to apply for asylum and those who are not successful with applications will be deported,” Butler said.
Hollande’s visit comes only days after his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy – who is hoping to make a comeback as president, railed against the inflows of refugees and migrants to France during a separate trip to Calais.
The issue has been low-key under Hollande’s four-year-old presidency, but he has now been forced to take a visible stance on it under pressure from his right-wing rival Sarkozy and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
“The timing though of this announcement is significant, as there is French presidential election here next year and the president knows immigration is high on the agenda of many voters ..,” Butler said.
“He really wants to be looking at it as being seen as doing something as Calais is really a symbol of migration and immigration in France.”
Hollande called on Britain – where many of the refugees ultimately want to go – to play its part in managing the situation at the camp, which holds between 7,000 and 10,000 people.
Delivering a stern message, the French president said that he expected London to fully honour agreements on managing a flow of refugees who mostly flock to Calais from war zones such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in the hope of reaching Britain by boat, train or in stowed away in the back of cargo trucks.
“I also want to restate my determination that the British authorities play their part in the humanitarian effort that France is undertaking and that they continue to do that in the future,” he said.
People camped in Calais regularly try to climb on lorries or other vehicles in order to get to the United Kingdom via the Channel tunnel.
Butler said that the vast majority of people come to Calais with the aim of reaching the United Kingdom.
“You can close it but it is not going to stop people from coming here in order to reach Britain,” she said.
Plans to relocate the refugees have sparked controversy and protests, with local residents in areas where new shelters could be established vehemently opposed the move.