France set to dismantle migrant camp in Calais, as political pressure mounts

Opponents of French President François Hollande are calling for Britain to play a bigger role providing for migrants hoping to settle there, who are stuck in France as they file asylum claims.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
A migrant rides a bicycle as another migrant repairs his shelter in 'the Jungle' camp in Calais, France, on Sept. 25, 2016. President François Hollande announced Monday that the migrant camp would be disassembled.

President François Hollande confirmed Monday a migrant camp in Calais known as the Jungle will be razed and the thousands of migrants living there will be moved to reception centers across the country because "the situation is unacceptable and everyone here knows it."

In a visit to Calais, Mr. Hollande also called on Britain to help in this "humanitarian effort," since the desired destination of many of the migrants in the camp there is across the English Channel. 

The plan to completely dismantle the camp comes amid demands from a wide range of French citizens, from truck drivers, farmers, dockworkers, and merchants, to right-wing opponents of Hollande, to close the camp and force Britain to play a greater role. In order to shut down the Jungle for good, France plans to relocate the up to 10,000 migrants living there around the country while it processes asylum claims for thousands of camp residents who don't want to permanently settle in France.

"I am here to reach the UK," Einas, an unaccompanied 17-year-old migrant, told The Guardian. "That is all I think about. I have no other plan." 

Hollande said Monday the camp will be permanently dismantled by the end of the year, but offered no concrete timeline. The announcement confirms remarks he and his government made earlier this month announcing they would close and destroy the squalid camp. The 7,000 to 10,000 migrants living there, many of whom hail from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Sudan, will be sent in groups of 40 to 50 to reception centers across the country. They will be able to stay at one of the 164 reception centers for up to four months while authorities study their cases, according to Hollande. Any migrant who does not seek asylum will be deported.

Half of the Calais camp was already dismantled in March. Since that time, however, the population of migrants there has doubled.

Migrants have also hopped on the back of cargo trucks and trains bound for England. In addition to angering and, in some cases, endangering drivers, the route has sometimes been deadly for migrants. Eleven have died this year attempting to cross into Britain, including a 14-year-old, Raheemullah Oryakhel, who was fatally struck by a truck on the street in Calais and has become symbolic of the struggle of children trying to cross into Britain. Raheemullah was legally entitled to asylum in England because his brother was living in Manchester. But the teenager became disillusioned by the length of the process, according to the Guardian.

"We are feeling that the UK government is to blame for Raheemullah's death," Abdul, a friend of his from Afghanistan, told The Guardian. "Some are starting to think that the solution is to stay in France."

France and England have struck a $23 million deal to confront the migrant crisis, including building a 13-foot wall out of Calais to prevent migrants from making the crossing. But Hollande said the British must own up to their part of the "humanitarian effort" that France is undertaking, and indicated that if France were to stop preventing migrants from crossing into Britain, Britain would ultimately be forced to deal with asylum seekers reaching its shores.

These comments came days after Britain's prime minister, Theresa May, called on the United Nations to adopt a tougher approach to the migrant crisis. Ms. May called on the UN to better address "root causes" of the crisis but also emphasized countries' rights to control their borders, and insisted that migrants must have their asylum requests processed in the first country they reach. This would mean migrants living in France must have their asylums processed there.

The Calais camps and others in France have also been a subject of political criticism for Hollande ahead of the April elections. Right-wing opponents have said the Socialist Party leader has failed to force Britain to deal with the migrant crisis.

In addition to tempering these voices, the French government must also convince migrants its plan is the best course of action.

In the Jungle many migrants have carved out a life of semi-normalcy as they are stuck in limbo, as Colette Davidson reported for The Christian Science Monitor in October 2015.

"Many in these camps think, 'life isn't great but it's doable,' " Elizabeth Collet, the director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, told the Monitor at the time.

And there are myriad reasons why people choose to stay in camps like the Jungle.

"Some face the threat of smugglers back home, to whom they owe large sums of money. Others may not qualify for protection in Europe, even if life is too dangerous or bleak to return home," Ms. Davidson reported. Yet "the lack of options and sense of desperation compels them to accept, however grudgingly, to live in an administrative no man's land."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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