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French police clear hundreds of migrants from Paris camps

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Paris (AFP)

French police evacuated over 1,600 migrants from two camps in northern Paris on Thursday, one of the biggest such operations in the city in years, a day after the government unveiled tough new measures to a "take back control" of immigration.

Around 600 police officers escorted the migrants from tents where coaches transported them to reception centres, in an operation that began under steady rain at around 6:00 am (0500 GMT), an AFP reporter said.

Police said they evacuated a total of 1,606 migrants from two camps near the Porte de la Chapelle, sheltered under part of the the ring road round that surrounds the capital.

Many of the occupants, which included families with children, said they were from Afghanistan or sub-Saharan Africa.

"I cannot allow a dangerous situation like this... all this cannot remain," Paris police chief Didier Lallement told reporters at the scene.

He said the operation, one of the largest in Paris since camps regularly began springing up in 2015, "was decided in the framework of the implementation of the (government) plan, it did not happen by chance."

The government of President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to crack down on immigration, a move widely seen as an attempt to keep rightwing parties from siphoning off voters ahead of municipal elections next year.

"We want to take back control of our migration policy," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told a press conference Wednesday, unveiling a series of measures which he said aimed to strengthen France's "sovereignty".

- 'Crack hill' -

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner had warned Wednesday that the several camps housing up to 3,000 migrants in northeastern Paris would be evacuated "before the end of the year."

Castaner also said that 16,000 places would be made available in three new migrant centres, an effort to keep migrants from setting up new settlements.

Awa, a 32-year-old woman from the Ivory Coast, said Thursday that she had been sleeping in a tent at the Porte de la Chapelle since she arrived in France a year ago.

"It's raining, it's cold. I don't know where I will go, but I'm glad to go because I will have a roof over my head tonight," she said, as she waited in line for a coach, carrying just a backpack.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said it was the 59th operation to clear migrant camps since 2015, when hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and misery in Asia, the Middle East and Africa headed for Europe.

"Each time we're told they won't come back," Hidalgo, who has clashed with the government over who is responsible for finding a solution to the migrant camps, told journalists on Thursday.

Residents have long complained of insecurity and unsanitary conditions at the camps, and police officials said they had registered 213 "aggressions" near the Porte de la Chapelle camps this year -- not including clashes between migrant groups.

But the migrants evacuated Thursday will not be forced to stay in the centres or file for asylum, which many fear could lead to their deportation.

Castaner told France Info radio on Thursday that police would also move to dismantle a notorious "crack hill" of drug addicts near the Porte de la Chapelle camps by Christmas.

The area had already been evacuated from the rocky embankment along the Paris ring road last June, but aid groups say around 100 people are still living there, often attracting migrants from the nearby camps.

- Far-right threat -

Macron has for months been talking up a tougher approach to immigration, arguing that France must end its "lax" approach to prevent voters from drifting to the far right.

Analysts say that beyond municipal contests in May 2020, he is gearing up for a likely repeat of his 2017 presidential battle against Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Assembly, set for 2022.

But it also promised to facilitate more skilled migration in sectors where French businesses are struggling to fill jobs, including by setting annual quotas.

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