LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Armed with sledgehammers, French workers on Tuesday began demolishing the “Jungle” camp outside the port town of Calais, which has been home to thousands of migrants, many of them seeking entry to Britain.
Police equipped with water canon stood guard as hundreds of migrants - some of whom have lived in the scrubland on the northern French coast for months or years - waited for busses to take them for resettlement across France.
The Calais camp, also known as the “Jungle”, was home to about 6,500 migrants, though aid workers say the number is closer to 10,000.
Most of the migrants are fleeing poverty and war in countries such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria, Sudan and Eritrea and want to reach Britain, which is connected to France by a rail tunnel and visible from Calais on a clear day.
Many wish to reunite with relatives already in Britain, with job opportunities and the more familiar English language also big draws.
No one knows for sure how many have made the perilous crossing from France to Britain, sometimes stowed away in the back of lorries or clinging to the undersides of trains.
Britain, however, bars most of them on the basis of European Union rules requiring them to seek asylum in the first member states they set foot in.
The camp has become a symbol of Europe’s failure to respond to the migration crisis as member states squabble over who should take the migrants in.
WHY ARE AUTHORITIES DEMOLISHING THE “JUNGLE” CAMP?
President Francois Hollande said last month that France would completely shut down the Jungle by the end of the year.
Ahead of a presidential election next April, Hollande has faced mounting public pressure to dismantle the camp and relocate its inhabitants. Conservative opponents have accused the Socialist president of mismanaging a problem they say is ultimately a British one.
Some right-wing opponents of Hollande want all the migrants sent to Britain. The far-right National Front party said the current resettlement plan would create mini-Calais camps across France.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has said it welcomed plans to demolish the Calais migrant camp, criticising “appalling” living conditions, poor security and a lack of basic services.
The plan is to relocate migrants in small groups to 450 centres across France, largely removing the option of forging a new life in Britain.
Yet Hollande’s plans are meeting stiff resistance in some towns. Earlier this month, shots were fired at two planned migrant centres, one in the western seaside resort town of Saint Brevin and the other in Saint-Hilaire-du-Rosier in southeastern France, a conservative stronghold.
Such resistance highlights the balancing act the government faces upholding humanitarian obligations and pleasing voters as Europe searches for a coherent response to the migration crisis.
London and Paris have been at odds over the fate of about 1,300 unaccompanied child migrants living in the Jungle.
The Red Cross estimates that 178 have been identified as having family ties to Britain, but it has said some of these children have been held back by bureaucracy.
The British interior ministry has said 80 children had been accepted for transfer from France so far this year under EU family reunification rules known as the Dublin regulation.
Last week, the first busload of 14 children arrived from Calais to be reunited with relatives already living in Britain.
On Monday, British Interior Minister Amber Rudd said British officials have interviewed 800 children who claim to have family in the UK.
Britain has sent out a team to work with the French authorities to identify children who can be brought to Britain under the terms of a change to British immigration law known as the Dubs amendment.
It states that Britain will take in “vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees” who arrived in the EU before March 20, even if they do not have relatives in Britain.
March 20 was date of an EU-Turkey deal aimed at limiting the flow of migrants into the bloc, which reached crisis levels in 2015. The Dubs amendment is named after the politician who proposed it, Alf Dubs, who came to Britain as a Jewish child refugee fleeing Nazi persecution.
Britain’s Rudd on Monday said her officials have worked with with French authorities to transfer almost 200 lone children, including 60 girls at risk of sexual exploitation.
Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women's rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories