French riot police have detained 278 migrants in a dawn operation to dismantle the "jungle", a network of makeshift camps set up by illegal migrants, mostly Afghans, near the northern Channel port of Calais.
French riot police on Tuesday detained 278 migrants in a dawn raid on a makeshift camp known as "the jungle" near Calais in northern France, a state official said.
The migrants – nearly half of whom identified themselves as minors – were to be taken to a nearby shelter as part of an operation to close down the camp used by foreigners trying to gain passage to Britain.
Prefect Pierre de Bousquet de Florian told a news conference that the operation took two hours and that police would now tear down shacks and tents set up in the scrubland in the Channel port of Calais.
FRANCE 24 correspondent Virginie Herz says the riot police arrested all the refugees and led them away to waiting buses during the operation.
"Journalists were told to leave the site and we saw the migrants being arrested and taken away to five waiting buses," she said.
“Most were arrested in the space of 20 minutes, in fairly violent and traumatic scenes. The migrants had been protected by a cordon manned by NGO volunteers and the police went in to pull out the refugees one at a time, trying to separate those that are under 18 from the adults,” Herz reported, adding that some of the younger ones were shocked and in tears.
Government officials say the "jungle" – as it is called by the migrants and local residents – had become a haven for people-smuggling gangs and a no-go zone for locals, with appalling sanitary conditions blamed for an outbreak of scabies in the past few months.
City officials support the police operation, saying the situation has become unbearable and denouncing a spike in offences against residents.
Before the onset of the riot police, the atmosphere at the camp was one of peaceful resignation as the migrants grimly awaited their fate, Herz reports.
"They are sad, they want to stay here. The 'jungle' is their only home,” she said.
Opposite the tent city's makeshift mosque, surrounded by pink geraniums in well-kept planters, white sheets fluttered between poles with messages in French and Pashtun for the French authorities, Herz reports.
"We need shelter and protection," read one. "We don't want to go back even if we die here."
Thousands of mainly male migrants, from Afghanistan, Iraq and other troubled nations, have headed to Calais in the past decade to try to jump on a ferry or a train crossing the Channel to Britain.
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 smaller camps in other ports in the Calais region," says Thomas Suel of the NGO Terre d'Errance.
Of those who remain many are minors who cannot be deported, or others "who simply don't have the money or connections to leave," says Vincent Lenoir, of the Salam migrant support group.
Lenoir estimates that 1,000 migrants managed to slip into Britain over a fortnight in late August and early September, after months of a border police lockdown.
Aid groups say the crackdown on the ‘jungle’ will simply push migrants further underground, making them more vulnerable to traffickers and criminal gangs.
Date created : 2009-09-22