French riot police raze a camp housing mainly Afghan immigrants as part of an agreement with Britain to step up efforts against illegal migrants. The camp was used as a base for risky attempts to reach Britain.
The migrants lived under extremely poor conditions
Britain's Home Secretary Alan Johnson said the action taken in Calais would "disrupt illegal immigration and people-trafficking routes." French police cleared and then bulldozed the makeshift forest camp - known as the "Jungle" - near the northern city of Calais on Tuesday morning.
"I welcome the swift and decisive steps that the French government has taken today to close the "Jungle" in Calais," Johnson said.
The prefect of the region told journalists after the two-hour operation that 278 migrants had been taken into custody, nearly half of them minors. The adults were temporarily jailed, while the minors were placed in "specialized centers," he said.
The immigrants, mostly Afghans, had hoped to travel the 35 kilometers across the English Channel into Britain.
An end to criminal trafficking
The operation by hundreds of police officers was the final step in a months-long undertaking by the French government to remove the camp. Britain and France had agreed earlier this year to step up efforts against illegal migrants by strengthening border security with state-of-the-art technology and closer cooperation.
Besson warned of more raids to come on nearby squatter camps
France's Immigration Minister Eric Besson told RTL radio that the dismantling of the camp was justified, calling the site a "base camp for human traffickers." The police operation "targeted the tools of the criminal gangs who sell migrants passage to Britain, exploit them and have them living in what had become an open air garbage dump," he said.
Besson said that each migrant would be offered an "individual solution" and given the choice to leave voluntarily, apply for asylum or be forcibly deported.
Aid groups predict, though, that many of the immigrants will simply end up back on the streets.
"They are going to be scattered across the countryside, at the mercy of traffickers," said Jean-Claude Lenoir of the Salam migrant support group. "At least here, the young people had built a kind of community. It's tragic."
Problem of illegal immigration continues
The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR said it recognized the need to combat smuggling and trafficking of persons and the right of the French government to maintain public order.
"Closing the so-called jungle camp does, however, not address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular migration, nor does it solve the problems of the people concerned, amongst whom there may be many with protection needs," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said at a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.
The migrants had gathered before their evacuation to demonstrate their plight
UNHCR called on the French authorities to ensure that those who wish to apply for refugee protection were given access to "a full and fair asylum procedure," Mahecic said.
"The situation in Calais underscores, once again, the need for governments in Europe to intensify efforts to arrive at a common European asylum system, not only on paper, but also in practice," he said.
Besson said the Calais crisis was partly caused by the lack of a coherent European Union migration policy. He said states should agree to share the asylum burden more fairly, while boosting the powers of the EU border police, Frontex.
Editor: Rick Demarest