Aid groups condemn French tactics

French riot police have clashed with those who were living in the camp. Photo / AP
French riot police have clashed with those who were living in the camp. Photo / AP

More than a dozen humanitarian and nongovernmental organisations yesterday accused local authorities in France of brutality against migrants as the demolition of a shantytown known as "the Jungle" on the edge of Calais continued into a third day.

Authorities moved ahead with dismantling the camp in northern France that is often used as a staging ground to cross the English Channel to Britain after police scuffled with migrants protesting over the demolition on Tuesday and Wednesday.

In a statement yesterday, the French and British humanitarian organisations - including Auberge des Migrants, Le Reveil Voyageur and Help Refugees - decried what they called "mass gassing" of migrants by local authorities.

The French Government had promised the dismantling of the camp would be a humanitarian operation. But bulldozers and police arrived first thing in the morning on Tuesday, and riots broke out among migrants. As a ground crew destroyed homes, migrants responded with rocks and police with tear gas.

The groups said the Government's "soothing rhetoric" was "only intended to disguise the reality" - a direct response to remarks last week from Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve promising a methodical demolition.

That reality, they alleged, included rubber bullets used against migrants assembled in peaceful protest, and several club beatings. Many refugees, the 16 co-signers said, were "ordered to leave their homes in a time frame between 1 hour and 10 minutes", in many cases without time to gather their belongings, including crucial identity documents.

"All they're trying to do is get rid of the embarrassing situation," said Clare Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, of the French Government's tactics. "They don't care where the people go. They're not even looking where those refugees go."

Calais officials did not immediately respond to requests to comment.

The French decision to raze the makeshift settlement in Calais reflects wider measures across Europe to tighten border controls and curb movements amid a historic wave of migrants fleeing war and poverty in North Africa and the Middle East.

Greek police estimate that as many as 10,000 migrants and refugees are at the border with Macedonia, which has closed entry to its side for the past 24 hours. On Wednesday, Macedonia's President, Gjorge Ivanov, warned that the entire Balkan corridor would shut down if Austria reached the migrant quota of 37,500 that it recently announced.

But the crisis has extended beyond refugee camps and quotas, challenging the very idea of Europe itself.

In response to the French Government's proposed demolition of the Jungle encampment, for instance, Belgium suspended Schengen rules permitting passport-free travel across many internal European borders, a hallmark of the European Union since 1995.

At a campaign rally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for continental solidarity across an increasingly insular European Union, demanding that the crisis be solved "among the 28 members, so that some states don't have to take on a heavy burden while others brush the problem away". Although not Europe's largest camp, the Jungle - home to an estimated 4000 people - has become an emblem of the entire European migrant crisis: a mix of squalor, desperation and hope.

The proximity of the camp to ferry docks and the Eurotunnel rail link with Britain has led to dangerous attempts to sneak across the English Channel by trying to stow away on trucks, trains and boats.

Many migrants - from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and other places - seek to reach Britain in hopes of finding work or joining relatives.

The British Government has refused to take most of them. And France has now decided that they cannot remain in the camp and has promised to relocate them to nearby container units or to other refugee centres across the country.

Even if receiving asylum in Britain remains an unlikely prospect, most migrants and refugees in the Jungle do not wish to apply for asylum in France.

In an interview, Philippe Mignonet, the deputy mayor of Calais, explained that most migrants "already know someone [in Britain] and can find a job on the black market". In France, he said, "it's 99 per cent impossible to find a job on the black market".

The destruction of the camp - authorised by a French judge last week - has sparked outrage from aid groups and a legal challenge from about 200 migrants and eight non-governmental organisations.

Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, one of the non-governmental aid organisations working on behalf of the refugees, accused French officials of reneging on pledges for a slow-paced intervention in the camp.

"They said they were going to be doing this slowly and gently - and with our co-operation," she said in an interview. "Let's just say that has not happened."

Deputy Mayor Mignonet justified the use of force in clearing out the camp. "There's no alternative," he said. "You can't negotiate, you can't talk, and you can't explain."

- Washington Post

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