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Amid criticism from rights group, France talks tough on Calais migrants

CALAIS, France (Reuters) - France’s interior minister on Friday ruled out a new migrant reception center in Calais and said he would deploy extra riot police to contain a new influx of people roaming the port city in search of food and shelter.

French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb leaves the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris France, June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The announcement, which comes after the country’s human rights watchdog, spoke of “inhuman living conditions” facing migrants, indicates newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron wants to show he is tough on security and will not backtrack on the eviction of thousands of migrants last November.

“We can’t set up another reception center in Calais because it would reproduce what happened before; you go from a few hundred to a few thousand migrants,” Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told reporters on a visit to Calais.

“It’s an issue that must be dealt with but not only in Calais.”

For most migrants, Calais is the last stop before an attempt to cross the short sea stretch to Britain. It has become a symbol of Europe’s troubles dealing with the influx of people fleeing war and poverty in countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Eritrea.

Collomb said he would send two extra squadrons of riot police to the zone and had been asked by Macron to produce a plan within two weeks on how to better manage the situation.

That, government spokesman Christophe Castaner said, would focus on speeding up the time taken to process asylum requests and filter out people who will be sent back to their country of origin if they fail to qualify as war refugees.

Collomb rejected calls from local humanitarian organizations for a new center to handle a resurgence of migrant arrivals in a city where makeshift camp dubbed The Jungle was demolished last November.

The vast, squalid sprawl of shanty-town shelters housed about 7,000 migrants, many of whom were taken to temporary lodgings in villages and towns across France pending examination of asylum requests.

“We don’t want to create a gathering point where numbers would swell back up to 7,000 over time. That would not be tolerable, for the migrants, the residents of Calais and for economic life,” Collomb said.

Aid agencies say about 400-600 migrants are once again gathered and sleeping rough on streets.

France’s human rights watchdog said in a statement this month that migrants in Calais were living in “inhuman living conditions” and that its officials had found evidence of “unprecedented” rights violations after interviewing migrants.

In one industrial zone, an Afghan who said he arrived a month ago, told Reuters on Friday that conditions were dire.

“We want to go to Great Britain, will go,” said Ahmed, who only gave his first name and said he was 26 years old. “We were treated better in the other countries we crossed. Here it’s no water, no shower,” he said.

Charities had warned the previous, Socialist government that migrants would return despite the shutdown of The Jungle.

Many migrants try to get to Britain by slipping secretively inside the cargo holds of large trucks bound for English shores.

A van driver died this week when he drove into a queue of trucks whose path was blocked by tree trunks. Several Eritrean migrants were arrested.

Additional reporting and writing by Brian Love in Paris; Editing by Richard Lough and Richard Balmforth