French cops to bulldoze Calais migrant camps

Police in northern France plan to dismantle a series of improvised migrant camps, including one dubbed the “Syrian Camp”, after an outbreak of scabies. It’s part of the ongoing tension in the city of Calais where thousands of immigrants have massed with hopes of reaching the UK.

French cops to bulldoze Calais migrant camps
Authorities in Calais are planning to raze a series of migrant camps. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

Social workers were outraged on Thursday following an announcement from top local administrator in Calais, in northern France, several migrant camps would be cleared from the town’s port by “next week”.

Following a meeting with humanitarian groups on Wednesday local Prefect Denis Robin told reporters: “I’m going to close three camps on public property at the port next week. It is out of the question that we encourage the setting up of a jungle.”

Up to 850 migrants are believed to be living in Calais at present with as many as 650 at the port alone. The port attracts scores of migrants hoping to smuggle themselves across the Channel to the UK, which some see as having a more generous policy toward refugees.

Authorities have said they will help the most ‘fragile’ of the population living in the camps. For children that means a transfer to a holiday camp 97 km from the port, while adults can request “emergency housing”. Activists say most of the migrant will simply end up in the street.

The migrant camps are being ravaged by an outbreak of scabies, which is a contagious, extremely itchy skin rash caused by a parasite. Local humanitarian groups had called on the prefecture to help fight the infection.

“They’re taking advantage of treating people for scabies to destroy the camp. It’s a waste of equipment and where are the migrants going to go?” Médecins du Monde activist Martine Devries told French daily La Voix du Nord. “We get the feeling the authorities think once everything is destroyed all this will go away.”

The camps in Calais have been a social and political controversy for years. Migrants have built up improvised facilities only to be cleared out periodically by police. The matter has also become a sore spot in cross Channel relations.

Politicians have used the issue to lob criticism, including the Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart who claimed the UK's "generous" refugees benefits were to blame for the camps in her town.

"Calais is a hostage to the British. That's enough. It's no longer tenable. It's necessary to renegotiate these accords. We're not here to do their job," she said, according to The Telegraph back in 2009 during a row over the migrants.

The problem has only gotten worse as the instability in Egypt and the war in Syria have fatten the ranks of migrants waiting to clandestinely climb aboard a lorry or train in Calais. The “Syrian camp” and “African camp” are among those slated for destruction by police in Calais.

It’s unlikely things will get better anytime soon. Port authorities have intercepted some 3,000 illegal migrants so far this year, a ten-fold increase over the 300 caught in the same period last year, French paper Paris Normandie reported.

READ ALSO: 'France is failing its duty to Syria's refugees'

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.