Under the boos and jeers of anarchist activists from Britain and Germany, two large camps of asylum-seekers, allegedly suffering from an outbreak of skin disease, have been cleared by police from the centre of Calais.
Police with loud hailers dispersed 600 migrants - mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea and Somalia - who are trying to enter Britain illegally.
Minors and women were offered temporary shelter. Some migrants were taken into custody. Most seemed just to melt away, sheltering from the drizzle under blankets or old curtains.
French charitable associations protested that, despite official promises, medical treatment and hot showers to combat scabies were not given to the migrants. They accused the French authorities of using the epidemic as an excuse to crack down on the estimated 800 would-be cross-Channel asylum seekers in the Calais area, whose numbers have doubled in the last two months.
“It was just a carnival,” said Cécile Bossy of Médécins du Monde. “From a health perspective, there was nothing professional about what happened today. No showers or treatment were offered.”
The clearances are part of an interminable, cat-and-mouse game which has been going on on the French channel coast for nearly two decades. In 2002, the semi-official Sangatte Red Cross camp for refugees was closed, after intense pressure from Britain. In 2009, the “jungle”, a shanty-town in scrubland on the edge of Calais, was bulldozed.
After each closure the migrant numbers reduced for a while before rapidly building up again. The two main camps cleared today have grown up in the last year in the heart of the town and port of Calais itself – infuriating local people who have been demanding their removal for months.
The centre-right mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchart, finally persuaded the national government to announce that it would intervene last week. The timing may have been influenced in part by the European elections. Migration both from outside and within the EU were amongst the issues exploited by hard right parties who were successful in last week’s voting.
One camp, known as “Eritrea” or the “African camp”, was a jumble of huts made from plastic tarpaulins on a canal bank close to Calais town hall. It contained around 200 African refugees, including many teenagers and some women.
Sibatu, 17, from Eritrea, told The Independent: “I want go to England because there I can work. In Eritrea, only violence.” He said he had been in Calais for one month, trying to stow away each night on lorries bound for Dover.
The closure of the camp would make no difference he said. “Life is hard here, especially the rain. But I try go England again and again. One day, I succeed.”
A larger camp, known as “Afghanistan” or the “Syrian camp” contained about 400 young Afghan, Pakistani, Syrian and Iraqi men. It sprawled across disused railway sidings near the double, 10ft high, electrified security fences protecting the Calais ferry port.
Adamkhan, 34, had been living there for two months. He was once a maths teacher in a primary school in Peshwar in Pakistan. He fled last year after he and his family were threatened by the Taliban for promoting “Western education”.
After a long journey overland, he finally entered Italy earlier this year and was given temporary asylum papers. After trying and failing to find work in Italy, he made for Calais. He was walking with a crutch yesterday after injuring his leg fleeing from police while trying to board a lorry a few days ago.
Speaking in calm, thoughtful and excellent English, Adamkhan told The Independent: “Most of the immigrants here have papers for Italy and the whole of the Shengen zone (the border free area of continental Europe). But they want to go to England because they speak a little English and because they think they can work there.”
“I know the UK is a crowded island and no one wants us. I know the French authorities have a very difficult job. Conditions in these camps are inhuman. But what is the solution? Clearing them will make no difference except to make our lives even more miserable.”
The Calais asylum-seekers are only a fraction of the hundreds of illegal migrants who enter the European Union each day from Morocco or Turkey or across the Mediterranean from Libya. The great majority remain in Spain or Italy or move on to France or Germany.
French government officials angrily reject allegations sometimes made in the British press and by British poiticians that they are, complicit in the constant build-up of migrants in Calais. They accuse the British government of failing to make it clear to English-speaking that would-be asylum-seekers – if they can only breach the barrier of the Channel - are guaranteed an “El Dorado” in the United Kingdom.
Pierre Henry, director general of the French pressure group Terre d’Asile ('Land of asylum') told The Independent: “Calais is, and will continue to be, a visible problem because Britain is not in the Schengen Agreement and you are an island. Of course, not all illegal migrants want to go to the UK but the ones that do are more visible because they reach Calais and they pile up there.”
“What happened today is no solution. The authorities cannot allow a health hazard in the centre of Calais, that is true. But no alternative is offered. Anything which is done for the migrants attracts criticism from Britain. The only possible solution is a proper EU policy on migration and more cooperation between Britain and France to choose which of these migrants are genuine cases deserving asylum.”