French police cleared more than 800 migrants Tuesday from a makeshift camp that sprung up outside a gymnasium near the northern port of Dunkirk last spring, after a court ruled it had become a health and security hazard.
The mayor of Grande-Synthe opened the gym to migrants last December to keep families out of the cold, and had planned to close it with the return of warmer weather.
But hundreds of others, mainly young Iraqi Kurd men, soon began pitching tents around the site while they waited for a chance to try to reach Britain.
The government later installed water faucets, bathrooms and showers after aid groups filed a complaint on humanitarian grounds with France‘s State Council, which hears claims against administrative authorities.
But this month the city’s mayor sought and obtained a court order to shut down the camp, citing complaints from local authorities and residents about violence, garbage and the presence of people-smugglers among the migrants.
Police moved in shortly after 8:00 am (0600 GMT), putting the migrants on buses to bring them to shelters elsewhere where they can apply for asylum, before workers began dismantling the tents.
A total of 811 people, including 506 young men and 58 unaccompanied minors, were cleared from the gym and makeshift camp, the government’s top regional official said.
“I think everyone here was glad to get out of this shantytown,” the official, Michel Lalande, told journalists.
‘One more evacuation’
Northern France has long been a magnet for people seeking to smuggle themselves to Britain in one of the tens of thousands of trucks and cars that travel daily between the countries on ferries and trains.
The area around Grande-Synthe has traditionally drawn Iraqi Kurds, and makeshift camps have repeatedly been cleared in recent years.
French authorities have vowed to avoid a repeat of “the Jungle”, a sprawling camp near the northern port city of Calais that one point held some 10,000 people.
But rights groups have criticised police tactics, which have included seizing migrants’ tents and other items.
In December, the country’s human rights ombudsman denounced the “extreme destitution” suffered by people camping out or sleeping under bridges in the Calais area.
The ombudsman, Jacques Toubon, accused the authorities of “trying to make (migrants) invisible” by regularly tearing down their camps without providing them with viable alternatives.
And many officials and aid groups say that as long as the dream of reaching Britain remains strong, migrants will keep massing on the coasts along the English Channel.
Recently migrants have begun taking every greater risks to try reach Britain, including trying to cross the Channel — the world’s busiest shipping lane — in small boats.
Martial Beyaert, the mayor of Grande-Synthe, told AFP on Tuesday that he expected people to start coming back “very soon” after “just one more evacuation”.
“We can’t force people to start the process of integrating in France,” he said.
His view was shared by Claire Millot, secretary general of the Salam migrant aid group, which has been working at the camp.
“Nobody wants to see people living like this,” Millot told AFP.
“But putting them on buses to bring them to shelters they don’t want to go to, it doesn’t make any sense. They’re going to come back,” she said.
French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to speed up the asylum claims process for people deemed to be bona fide refugees, while vowing to accelerate the deportation of so-called economic migrants.
On Monday, he told his ministers that the government needed to tackle the issue of immigration head-on by taking a harder line, warning that “by claiming to be humanist, we are sometimes too lax.”