Paris (CNSNews.com) – French President Francois Hollande has pledged to dismantle before the end of the year a large migrants’ camp near the city of Calais, a major transit point to the United Kingdom across the English Channel.
Visiting Calais this week for the first time since becoming president in 2012, Hollande said that the infamous camp known as “The Jungle” will finally be shut down.. “We are going to dismantle the Jungle definitely and for good,” he declared.
Hollande said the camp’s inhabitants would be resettled, in small groups, in reception centers located around the country.
The camp was opened by the Red Cross in 1999 to house some 800 migrants wishing to make their way to the United Kingdom. It quickly became overcrowded and today between 8,000 and 10,000 people live there in poor conditions.
The camp is located along the trucking route to Calais port, and near the tracks of the Eurostar, the high-speed passenger train operating between London and Paris.
Since the migrants, mostly from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and Syria, flock to Calais because they hope to make it to Britain, France contends that the British government should help France deal with the issue.
Britain promised to pay around $9 million in humanitarian aid to help France cope with the migrants. Earlier this year, the two countries struck a $23 million agreement which included the building of a wall designed to prevent migrants from the camp from climbing onto trucks headed for the port and for Britain.
Plans to shut down the camp are opposed by aid workers and organizations working with the migrants, whose numbers currently include an estimated 700 children.
Lily Caprani, deputy executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF in the U.K. said in a statement that “for refugee children who left their homes fleeing conflict and persecution, the pending demolition of the camp threatens their hopes of reaching their families in the U.K. It is now more urgent than ever for our government to get these children to safety.”
“Asking for the dismantling of the camp today would mean a worsening of the situation instead of solving the problems,” said Francois Guennoc, head of the organization known as Auberge des Migrants, in an open letter to the government.
Laura Griffiths, senior field manager for Safe Passage U.K., a group that helps refugees get safe access and legal routes to asylum, said it was a disgrace that children who have a legal right to live in Britain were still living in tents. (Some of the children reportedly have family members already living legally in Britain.)
With a presidential election due in France next year, how to deal with the camp has become a hot political topic.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited the region a few days before Hollande, told supporters there it was time to reestablish strict controls on France’s borders to prevent the country from being “overwhelmed by migrants.”
Sarkozy also said he opposed Hollande’s plan to send the camp’s inhabitants to various centers all over France. He promised to sort out the problem by the end of 2017 if re-elected president, but has given no further details
Not all members of Sarzoky’s Republicans party hold identical views on the matter. The mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, a member of the party, said she was in favor of Hollande’s decision only if it was done quickly, “so inhabitants of Calais will take back their normal lives.”
Alain Juppé, a former prime minister and a Republicans candidate in upcoming presidential primaries, said in a radio interview he is not against Hollande’s plan, but that mayors and other elected officials would first have to agree to open centers in their cities.
Communist Party general secretary Pierre Laurent said the migrants should be spread to various camps across the country, but only after broad consultation with mayors and officials, which has not yet occurred.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said during a recent visit to Calais that some of the unaccompanied minors in the camp will be moved to “specific accommodation dedicated to their situation,” while those who meet the conditions will travel to Britain.
Relations between migrants in the camp and Calais inhabitants have been bad from the outset. Since the beginning of 2016, 12 migrants have died, five hit by trucks while trying to climb aboard and others during clashes with police forces.
Previous efforts to dismantle the camp ended in violence. Hollande has said efforts will be made to avoid violence when the planned closure takes place, but provided no details.