French police are clearing nearly 1,000 migrants from a gymnasium near the northern port city of Dunkirk after a court ruled it was a health and security hazard.
The mayor of Grande-Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk, last December opened up the sports hall to migrant families seeking shelter from the cold.
Since then, it has grown into a makeshift camp with approximately 800 people sleeping in tents pitched around the cramped gymnasium where some 170 people, mostly Iraqi Kurds hoping to reach the United Kingdom, had taken shelter.
A court in the regional city of Lille ordered the gymnasium shut on September 4 following complaints from local authorities and residents about violence, rubbish and the presence of people-smugglers among the migrants.
Tuesday’s clearance operation began shortly after 8:00am local time (6:00 GMT).
Young men travelling alone were the first to board buses that will take them to migrant shelters around the region, where they can apply for asylum. Families are to be moved later.
Northern France has long been a magnet for people seeking to smuggle themselves to the UK in the tens of thousands of trucks and cars that travel daily between the countries on ferries and trains.
Al Jazeera’s Sonia Gallego reporting from Dunkirk said that despite the dangerous journey, the migrants pay thousands of dollars to people-smugglers in an attempt to gain a spot on what is usually nothing more than a rubber dinghy or small kayak in order to try and cross the English Channel.
“[It’s] extremely dangerous as it’s one of the busiest shipping lanes that there is. With that expectation a lot of the people who boarded the coaches were keen to get away from the situation here,” Gallego said.
“There are a few people who we spoke to, who said that even that they were being turfed out of this place, they were still trying to … get to the UK no matter how dangerous that would be, because for them it is preferable to continuing to live the destitute situation that they currently find themselves in.”
The area around Grande-Synthe has traditionally drawn Iraqi Kurds and has been repeatedly cleared in recent years.
French authorities have had a policy of trying to prevent migrants from forming camps since 2016 when they razed a notorious tent camp known as the “Jungle” near the port of Calais which was home to 10,000 people at its height.
But rights groups have criticised police tactics and migrants have begun taking greater risks to try and reach the UK, including trying to cross the Channel in small boats.
In December, the country’s human rights ombudsman denounced the “extreme destitution” suffered by people camping out or sleeping under bridges in the Calais area.
The ombudsman, Jacques Toubon, accused the authorities of “trying to make [migrants] invisible” by regularly tearing down their camps without providing them with viable alternatives.
French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to speed up the asylum claims process for people deemed to be bona fide refugees while promising to accelerate the deportation of so-called economic migrants.
On Monday, he told his ministers that the government needed to tackle the issue of immigration headlong, warning that “by claiming to be humanist, sometimes we are too laxist”.