PARIS — Police scuffled Tuesday with migrants protesting the demolition of a shantytown known as “the Jungle” as authorities moved ahead with plans to dismantle the camp in northern France used for attempts to sneak into Britain.
The French decision to raze the makeshift settlement in Calais reflects wider measures across Europe to tighten border controls and curb movements amid a historic wave of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from regions such as North Africa and war zones in Syria and Iraq. Greek police estimate that as many as 10,000 migrants and refugees are currently at the border with Macedonia, which has closed its border for the last 24 hours. On Monday, Macedonia’s president, Gjorge Ivanov, warned that the entire Balkan corridor would shut down if Austria reached the migrant quota of 37,500 it recently announced.
This represents the worst immigration crisis on European since the conclusion of World War II–a crisis that the United Nations refugee agency has called “largely self-induced.” But the crisis has often meant more than camps and quotas: in some cases, it has challenged the very idea of Europe itself. In response to the French government’s proposed demolition of Calais’s “Jungle” encampment, for instance, nearby Belgium went so far as to suspend Schengen rules permitting passport-free travel between many internal European borders, a hallmark of the European Union since 1995.
Although not Europe’s largest camp, the Jungle — currently home to an estimated 4,000 people — has become an emblem of the entire European migrant crisis: a mix of squalor, desperation and hope. This particular camp is especially noteworthy for its proximity to both London and Paris, two of Europe’s most important cities, each an easy train ride way. Calais is even a stop on the Eurostar, the popular high speed train that connects the two capitals.
The immediate proximity of the camp, near ferry docks and the Eurotunnel rail link with Britain, has become a staging ground for often dangerous bids to cross the English Channel by trying to stow away aboard trucks, trains and boats. Many migrants — from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and other places — seek to reach Britain in hopes of finding work or joining family.
While the British government has refused to take most of them in, France has now decided that they cannot remain in the camp and promised to relocate them to nearby container units or to other refugee centers across the country. Even if receiving asylum in Britain remains an unlikely prospect, most migrants and refugees in the Jungle do not wish to apply for asylum in France.
In an interview, Philippe Mignonet, the deputy mayor of Calais, explained this phenomenon by claiming that most migrants “already know someone [in Britain] and can find a job on the black market.” In France, he said, “it’s 99 percent impossible to find a job on the black market.”
“Most of them speak English, or a bit of English,” he added. “They could try to learn a bit of French, but they refused to do so.”
On Monday, authorities began destroying the Jungle’s southern section, its most densely populated area. Clashes flared through the night, with police firing tear gas and forcibly removing migrants trying to stand their ground. Fires were reported in several areas of the camp slated for demolition.
Early Tuesday, a woman stood atop one of the shanties and cut her wrists as police moved in, the Associated Press reported. Her condition was not immediately known. A man accompanying her was beaten by baton-wielding police.
According to a census conducted two weeks ago by the organization Help Refugees, an estimated 3,400 people live in the southern area of the camp, 305 of whom are unaccompanied children fending for themselves.
The destruction of the camp — authorized by a French judge last week — has sparked outrage from aid groups and a legal challenge from about 200 migrants and eight nongovernmental organizations.
Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s interior minister, promised Thursday that the camp would be taken down methodically. “It has never been our intention to send in bulldozers to destroy the camp,” he said.
But bulldozers arrived early Monday along with a crew of about 20 workers who began tearing down homes and buildings.
Clare Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, one of the nongovernmental aid organizations working on behalf of the refugees, accused French officials of reneging on pledges for a slow-paced intervention in the camp.
“They said they were going to be doing this slowly and gently — and with our cooperation,” she said in an interview. “Let’s just say that has not happened.”
Authorities began demolishing tents and homes in the camp, in some cases giving migrants one hour’s notice, according to Moseley. Mignonet justified the use of force in clearing out the camp. “There’s no alternative,” he said. “You can’t negotiate, you can’t talk, and you can’t explain.”
Fabienne Buccio, a local prefect, insisted recently that a police presence was necessary because “extremists” might persuade migrants to reject the government’s proposed alternatives. Activists, Mignonet added, “manipulate the migrants” and “use them for political purposes.” “In fact they don’t care about the migrants,” he said. “If they did, they would help them accept what the state is offering.”
Arnaud, who would only give his first name, is one such activist, affiliated with the “No Borders” group. “A lot of the houses aren’t empty—they just force them out, and tear them down,” he said of the demolition of migrant homes. “It’s not true when the government says ‘it’s not eviction, it’s not violent.’ All of this is bullshit.”
Moseley said she and other volunteers were able to enter the camp but faced tear gas and pepper spray.
“I do not call that nonconfrontational or nonviolent,” she said.