Tuesday, September 22, 2009

French police clear out major migrant camp

French police clear out major migrant camp

In this aerial view, police officers invade the migrants makeshift camp known as the "Jungle" in Calais, northern France, Tuesday. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere) French police on Tuesday began clearing out a sprawling forest camp known as the "jungle" where hundreds of illegal migrants live as they try to reach Britain.

CALAIS, France (AP) - French police on Tuesday began clearing out a sprawling forest camp known as the "jungle" where hundreds of illegal migrants live as they try to reach Britain.

About a dozen vans carrying riot police arrived at the site in the northern coastal town of Calais and officers began moving in on the camp.

Most of the migrants are from Afghanistan, often making costly and dangerous clandestine journeys to reach Europe. Several immigrants rights activists were also at the site.

The migrants try to elude the elaborate border security network, including heat sensors and infrared cameras, at the port of Calais or the Channel tunnel that carries the Eurostar trains and other undersea traffic. Nearly a decade ago, many thousands made it across by hopping a ride to Britain. Today only a few make it, but enough to sustain hope.

France's Immigration Minister Eric Besson pledged earlier this year to clear out the camp, viewing it as a public-health nightmare and a haven for human traffickers. It is also a point of contention with Britain, which wants the border better sealed.

Britain is viewed as an easier place than France to make a life, even clandestinely, a view perpetuated by traffickers and family members or friends already there.

As many as 1,000 people at a time have called the "jungle" their home, but after Besson's announcement their numbers dwindled. Besson said that about 250 remained before the clean-out operation began. He said on RTL radio he was heading to the site Tuesday.

France's immigration ministry has promised to offer options to migrants. If they leave the country voluntarily, they can get a stipend; if they meet the profile, they can demand asylum in France; otherwise, they are to be expelled.

In the camp, scores of makeshift tents built from sticks and sheets of plastic sprout from the sand and brush. Piles of garbage litter the scrubland.

The illegal migrants, mainly Afghan men and boys and some as young as 14, bake flat bread over a fire in a tin drum. The only amenities are a spigot of water at the entrance, a homemade toilet hidden behind plastic and, in a scrupulously cleared area, a mosque made of blue tarp and ringed with pots of flowers.

Smaller camps scattered about the region shelter Iraqi Kurds or illegal migrants from other trouble spots.

In the camps, tales abound of journeys by foot, in trucks and boats to reach northern France and of efforts to slip inside or under trucks crossing the Channel.

In 2002, authorities dismantled a Red Cross-run camp in nearby Sangatte, which had been used by illegal migrants as a springboard for sneaking across the Channel in freight trains and trucks. The migrants kept coming back even after the camp was shut down.