LONDON // Hundreds of French police moved in yesterday to clear "the jungle" - a squalid refugee camp that has grown up on the outskirts of Calais. There were scuffles but little serious resistance as 600 gendarmes, including members of the CRS national anti-riot force, moved into the area of scrubland and woods to round up the illegal migrants living there, the vast bulk of them Afghan Pashtuns.
By the day's end, 278 men and boys had been arrested - less than a quarter of the number there only a month ago. They will now be given the opportunity to apply for asylum or to be flown back to Afghanistan. All the men and children in the shantytown that had grown up in the past seven years were hoping to reach the Britain. Calais, France's largest cross-Channel ferry port, has been a magnet for illegal immigrants for more than a decade with the refugees making daily attempts to sneak aboard the thousands of lorries heading to Britain each day, either by ship or through the cross-Channel tunnel.
Under pressure from the UK, the French government announced last week that it would raze the camp in a bid to curtail the activities of human traffickers who, typically, charge US$15,000 (Dh55,200) to transport a person from Iraq or Afghanistan to France. Britain, though, remains the eventual goal for the migrants. Its welfare system is considered more generous and its illegal jobs market relatively open because, say critics, of the absence of national identity cards.
Police moved in to the area shortly after dawn. There were scuffles and some arrests as police clashed with local civil rights protesters, but there was little resistance from the refugees themselves, some of whom were led away in tears. Others were arrested as they prayed at the makeshift mosque made largely out of plastic sheeting. It has become a focal point of the camp, which has gradually expanded since a Red Cross migrant centre at nearby Sangatte was closed down seven years ago.
About a dozen of the migrants refused to leave yesterday and were dragged or carried away by police. Sail Pardes, a 15-year-old from eastern Afghanistan, said, before he was led away, that he had been at the camp for about six months. He said conditions in "the jungle" were tough and that he and his fellow immigrants were forced to live on basic rations such as pasta. "Most of the time we're tired," he said. "The most important thing is to get to England. I want to go to school and become a better person."
Declaring the clearance operation a success, Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, the Prefect of Pas-de-Calais, said that of the 278 detained, 132 had declared themselves children. There were no females in the camp. The adults were taken to various police stations for processing while the children were taken by bus to "special centres", he added. But voluntary workers, who have been supplying the refugees with limited food supplies, say most of the people in "the jungle" have simply drifted away in recent weeks.
Some estimate that 1,000 have left, heading for other, neighbouring European countries or to one of the 16 other illegal camps or squats that exist on the French coast between Brittany and the Belgian border. The majority of the several thousand illegal immigrants currently in the remaining, makeshift French camps are considered economic migrants and come primarily from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Vietnam.
"It is quite right that "the jungle" should be shut down," said Dan Hodges from the charity Refugee Action. "But while it is possible to sweep away the camp, you can't simply sweep away the problem." Conditions inside "the jungle" have been causing concern for years. There were practically no sanitary facilities although a tap was recently installed to provide water - before that, the refugees bathed either in the sea or in the wastewater channel of a nearby chemical plant.
The residents made tents with frames of chicken wires and metal grilles and covered them with scraps of plastic or rubbish sacks. Most had no beds and the migrants slept on crowded floors made of old carpets and car mats. Eric Besson, the French immigration minister, said the camp had to go because it had become a haven for people traffickers. "On the territory of this nation, the law of "the jungle" cannot endure," he said. "There are traffickers who make these poor people pay an extremely high price for a ticket to England."
Alan Johnson, Britain's home secretary, said that he was "delighted" about the French action, adding that both the UK and France "were committed to helping individuals who are genuine refugees, who should apply for protection in the first safe country that they reach". He also denied suggestions from the EU in Brussels that the UK was about to offer to take in some of those detained in the jungle.
However, Sir Andrew Green, chairman of Migrationwatch, a British immigration think-tank, suggested that the British government's benign policy towards illegal immigrants was contributing to the problem. "This is a welcome decision but it will not tackle the root cause of the problem, namely that Britain is regarded as a 'soft touch'. Why else would people be queuing up in Calais?" he said. Sir Andrew said the government should be more robust in its efforts to remove failed asylum seekers and should rule out absolutely any suggestion of an amnesty for those illegally living in Britain.