CALAIS, France (Reuters) - Hundreds of French police cleared an improvised camp dubbed “the jungle” on Tuesday where illegal migrants, mostly Afghans, gather near the port of Calais before trying to cross to Britain.
Dozens of charity workers formed a human wall before a group of migrants, about half of whom were minors, who carried banners declaring “the jungle is ours”; but police encircled the crowd and made 278 arrests as they loaded migrants onto buses.
“This is the violent image of France that they want to give. It’s sad and it’s a disgrace,” said Vincent Lenoir, a member of the humanitarian association Salam.
Many of the migrants cried and shouted as they were arrested and led away from the makeshift tent city. Bulldozers later moved in to clear the zone.
The migrants will either be escorted back to their home countries, allowed to apply for asylum or forcibly expelled if they refuse to leave voluntarily.
Immigration Minister Eric Besson defended the operation, announced last week, which has been heavily criticized by humanitarian groups.
“This operation is not aimed at the migrants themselves. It’s aimed at the logistical infrastructure and mafia-style networks of the people traffickers who sell the trip to England at a very high price,” he told a news conference.
He said the “jungle” had become “an open air dumping ground” in which migrants were brutally exploited by criminals in unhygienic and unsafe conditions.
But opponents said the operation was a cosmetic move that would do nothing to dissuade the thousands of illegal immigrants from desperately poor countries in Africa and Asia who try to cross European borders every year.
“As long as we don’t put an end to immigration which is illegal but at the same time understandable we won’t really be able to solve the problem,” Christian Vanneste, a local member of parliament for the ruling UMP party told France Info radio.
“We have to solve this problem at European level. This is immigration which doesn’t really concern France. We’re just a staging post,” he said.
The “jungle” sprang up after France closed a large Red Cross center at nearby Sangatte in 2002 under pressure from Britain, which saw it as a magnet for clandestine immigrants.
Besson acknowledged that European countries needed to improve coordination of border controls and he said France had proposed the creation of a Europe-wide frontier police force to control illegal immigration.
“European policies on immigration and asylum have to be made coherent with each other,” he said.
The “jungle” had begun to empty even before the operation, which was announced last week but campaigners said would-be migrants would still gather in the Calais area before attempting the risky cross-Channel trip.
“They can close the jungle but England will still be the same distance away,” said Monique Delannoy, a member of the Belle Etoile association.
(Additional reporting by Claire Watson and Pierre Savary in Lille)
Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Andrew Roche