French officials move to close migrant camp


POSTED: Tuesday, September 22, 2009

CALAIS, France » French officials this week will shut down a camp on the northern French coast where hundreds of Afghans, Pakistanis and other illegal migrants have gathered for years in the hope of making clandestine journeys across the English Channel.

The camp, labeled “;the jungle”; by migrants and this city's residents alike for its location among the thorn bushes and sand dunes of Calais, has been a source of tension since late 2002, when migrants started to camp out around the port after the closing of a Red Cross center in nearby Sangatte.

The move to eliminate the tents and ramshackle housing around the port is designed to halt migrants without papers from getting into Britain, and to crack down on the smuggling networks that assist them.

“;Smugglers will not lay down the law,”; France's immigration minister, Eric Besson, said last Wednesday, adding that the camp would be closed by the end of this week. He first announced the plan in April, responding to complaints from local businesses.

The closing of the camp, which may begin as early as Tuesday, is taking place as European countries increasingly use force to crack down on unwanted migrants. On July 12, Greece eliminated a makeshift camp in the port city of Patras; in May, Italy struck a controversial accord with Libya allowing it to turn back migrants' boats in the Mediterranean. The European Union estimates that 500,000 people cross its borders without papers each year.

In an interview on Monday, Pierre Bousquet, the prefect for the Pas-de-Calais region, who is directing the operation to shut the camp, said a riot police contingent that rotates permanently through Calais had been reinforced, giving him some 500 officers to ensure that the clearance went smoothly.

“;I hope to end this situation in a dignified and honorable manner,”; he said.

The number of migrants in the camp swelled to around 1,400 in August, according to Vincent Lenoir at Salam, an aid group whose volunteers have operated a soup kitchen for the migrants over the past seven years. But the number of migrants has dropped to under 300 currently, Bousquet said, in part because officials have swept some of the areas where they gather.

Frustrated at the difficulties of getting to Britain — attractive because of its large communities of Africans and South Asians and its underground economy — more migrants are now trying to reach Scandinavia, according to asylum data from the United Nations refugee agency and national ministries.

On Monday, migrants in Calais said that they were aware of the imminent police crackdown but that they were unsure what they should do. Many said that they had fled strife in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Pakistan and Iran, and that they had nowhere else to turn.

Mohammed Bashir, 24, a teacher from Logar province in Afghanistan, said he had been at the camp for a month. “;Let the police come,”; he said. “;Where are we going to run away? There is nowhere to go.”;

Moustafa Tcharminian, a 38-year-old from Tehran, moved from the camp to under a bridge recently. He said that closing the camp would have an impact on the migrants now in Calais because they would be put in detention or deported. But he insisted that it would have little impact on the smugglers. “;The smugglers are in love with money,”; he said. “;They will keep sending people and lying to them, telling them to go.”;

Asked whether the closing of the Calais camp would send migrants elsewhere in Europe, Bousquet, the official, conceded that the issue of how to deal with the migrants was a broader problem. “;I am at the end of the chain,”; he said.

Interviews with residents of Calais, which has seen migrants flock to the region since Poles came to work the mines in the 1920s, indicated that few believed that a police action would put an end to clandestine arrivals in the port, from which England is visible across the water, about 20 miles away.

“;They're only taking the problem somewhere else,”; said Fabrice Lecoustre, 52, a cafe owner in the center of the city. “;Where are they going to go now? Downtown? At least in Sangatte they had showers and toilets.”;