LONDON — French police began clearing hundreds of immigrants from makeshift camps in the English Channel port town of Calais on Wednesday.
After announcing the evictions a week earlier, teams of riot police surrounded three camps housing the immigrants, many of whom have fled war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea, and are trying to reach Britain by stowing away on trains or ferries. Many of the estimated 800 migrants had left the camps after being warned about the impending evictions.
Local officials said there was an outbreak of scabies and the camps had become a danger to public health.
But Cecile Bossy of the medical charity Doctors of the World, which works with the migrants, say the evictions will not solve anything.
"It means that some of the migrants will wander into the town and their health conditions will be more severe and more precarious," she said, adding that the policy of repression and eviction is useless, leaving the migrants in hardship and putting their health at risk.
The evictions come just days after far-right anti-immigration parties topped European elections in both France and Britain. The victorious French National Front party leader Marine Le Pen raised the issue on the campaign trail, calling for France to exit Europe’s passport-free area known as the Schengen zone.
Calais has long attracted floods of immigrants fleeing poverty or conflict in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. They hope to cross the 30-kilometer sea channel that separates France from Britain, where the migrants believe they will access better treatment and greater opportunities.
The camps have little sanitation, no electricity, and migrants say food is scarce.
Many risk their lives clinging to the axles of trucks bound for Britain. But some, such as Sudanese refugee Abdou, it's worth the risk.
“My dream is small. Yes, I want a house, I want some girl, this is my life, and I want to work, and I want to learn," he said. "It's my dream. I don't want anything else.”
Andrej Mahecic of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the migrants make the perilous journeys for different reasons.
“For UNHCR it is important to make a very clear distinction between asylum seekers and those that might be migrating for other reasons," he said. "When it comes to the asylum seekers, the French authorities have put in place the special measures for those who seek asylum.”
Mahecic says the number of migrants converging together in camps like this would be cut if Europe agreed on a common asylum policy.
“You have a situation across Europe where you have uneven [asylum] recognition rates; you have a different quality of decisions, if you like, across Europe. And, for example, for Syrians, they range in Europe from barely one percent in some European countries to virtually 100 percent in some others.”
Le Pen, the French National Front party leader, said that if France was able to control its own borders the migrants would not be in Calais.