Fierce clashes between riot police and refugees have erupted at the Jungle camp in Calais following the clearance of makeshift homes.
Around 50 structures were demolished by the local prefecture, despite an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to prevent the operation from going ahead. The decision to clear the southern half of the camp, thought to accommodate up to 3,400 people, was announced on Thursday.
Refugees in this section were woken early on Monday morning and told they had an hour to collect their possessions and leave.
“I lost everything I had. They said I had to be out in 10 minutes,” said Atif Ibrahim, a 37-year-old Sudanese man who has been in the camp for eight months. “The judge on Thursday said the police would not demolish any house that had someone in it, so we thought we’d be safe.”
The clearance began peacefully but tensions spilled over at around lunchtime. After a structure was set alight, police fired tear gas and refugees pelted them with rocks. A water cannon was deployed to extinguish the fire.
Hamdi Abbas, 25, from Sudan, complained of ill treatment at the hands of the police. “They dragged me out and hit me, I said, ‘this is where I live, where should I go now?’”
During the day, local media reported the presence of 55 police vans on site, each apparently carrying around 12 officers.
As darkness fell, the camp began to resemble a war zone as hundreds of additional officers flooded the area. Tear gas was fired from a motorway overpass and from empty land adjoining the camp. Hundreds of refugees flooded on to the motorway and rocks were thrown at passing traffic as smoke trails lined the sky. One volunteer described the police’s approach to using tear gas as like putting on “a firework display”.
Another volunteer, Joe Murphy, who helps run the Good Chance theatre, questioned why the prefecture had not stuck to the “soft” clearance techniques they had apparently committed to at a televised press conference on Thursday. “Bulldozers were used – this was certainly not the soft clearance that was promised,” he said.
Clare Moseley, founder of the Care4Calais charity, was among those caught in the tear gas. She expressed alarm at what she viewed as heavy-handed policing. “They said they wouldn’t be forceful but I saw 10 policeman carry out one refugee from his shelter. The prefecture [officials] then set about them [the shelters] with sledge hammers.
“After saying last week that it would be a slow process and they would work with us, that now seems to have gone out of the window. It was extremely unpleasant, especially when you consider what these people have been through already.”
After Thursday’s announcement, no timeframe for the clearance was given but volunteers said the local prefecture had pledged that there would be no action for three weeks, giving the European Court of Human Rights time to hear the case.
The appeal argues that the refugees’ human right to accommodation is being violated by the clearance as not enough alternative shelter is being provided. In recent weeks, a number of specially modified shipping containers fitted with beds have been installed at the camps. They are thought to have 300 spaces vacant while 700 places have been provided at reception centres around France.
Some refugees have accepted these arrangements but most are reluctant. The shipping containers require fingerprints to access, raising concern that these records could harm future asylum claims in other countries.
In addition, volunteers argue that the prefecture has severely underestimated the numbers living in the section they hope to clear, with a recent survey putting the population at 3,400. Many say that the refugees will simply set up smaller satellite camps.
It is believed that the clearance will continue on Wednesday. The targeted section of the camp contains many of the camp’s volunteer-led amenities such as its legal centre and women and children’s centre. At the court hearing on Thursday, a promise appeared to be made that these facilities would be exempt from the clearance.
For Mr Abbas, despite the demolition of his temporary home, his long-term goals remain as clear as ever. “I’ve been here for eight months,” he said. “I’m not going to give up until I reach England.”