Hundreds of migrants gathered in Calais to try to smuggle themselves into Britain were arrested and cleared from a makeshift camp in a pall of tear gas today during a dawn raid by French riot police.
The operation to detain more than 600 refugees, many of them from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa, represented the strongest crackdown by the French authorities in the last five years after weeks of increasingly draconian action to slow the steady stream of migrants heading for the Channel port.
A detachment of around 200 French CRS riot officers wearing helmets and shields moved into the makeshift camp in a food distribution area on the edge of the town, where migrants had sought shelter since their main camp was bulldozed in May, just after sunrise at about 6.30am. Dozens of refugees last month went on hunger strike in protest at what they said was a state of legal limbo and squalid conditions in Calais.
A security cordon was placed around surrounding streets on Wednesday morning, preventing access by the media. But witnesses said tear gas and pepper spray was used to disperse campaigners and refugees who tried to block the eviction before migrants – mostly young men from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea – were detained and put on coaches to be driven to detention centres and police stations as far away as Paris and Rennes in Brittany.
Campaigners said they feared that many of the migrants, who refuse to formally apply for asylum in France in the hope of smuggling themselves onto lorries bound for Dover and applying for leaving to remain in Britain, will be declared “illegal” and face deportation out of France to other European countries or their country of origin within 48 hours. A similar operation in 2009 led to the deportation of dozens of migrants.
Philippe Wannesson, a refugee worker based in Calais, told The Independent: “This is the most extreme action we have seen for years. There are new provisions which we believe would allow the authorities to fast track people out of France. The authorities have been preparing for some time for further action and now we see what they had in mind. There was panic and disorientation. But this is not a long-term solution. In a few weeks, if not days, it is likely new people will follow.”
Officials in the Calais regional government said police were enforcing a court order obtained to clear the feeding area, housed in a former warehouse close to the ferry terminal, and three squats used by migrants, who have no access to temporary accommodation for fear that permanent facilities would create a new “Sangatte”: the refugee camp closed following pressure from Britain in 2002.
Concern about sanitary conditions at the camps was given as one of the main reasons for the evictions. Police said the operation in May to clear tents housing several hundred men on a patch of wasteland had been because of an outbreak of scabies.
Denis Robin, prefect of the Pas de Calais region, said: “These evictions are the enforcement of court rulings. No one was injured as a result of today’s action.”
Witnesses said the arrival of the police had caused chaos at the main camp as hundreds of migrants tried to escape the round up. Lisa Furness, a Bristol-based artist who had been photographing daily life in the camp, said: “The alarm was raised and suddenly it was pandemonium. One moment people were sleeping, the next hundreds of people were trying to save themselves.
"Lots tried to climb over the fences to escape while others tried to push the police back. But they were pepper sprayed and it was pretty clear they were facing overwhelming force.”
Calais has tried unsuccessfully for more than a decade to try to find a solution to the steady procession of refugees, many of them dispossessed by conflict or deep in debt to people traffickers, hoping to conceal themselves on board Dover-bound lorries or hook themselves to axles, often with fatal consequences.
At least eight migrants have been killed since the beginning of the year, either in road accidents or drowned while trying to swim to car ferries or evade stringent security controls. The French authorities estimate there are around 1,000 migrants in Channel ports at any one time trying to reach the UK with detentions rising from around 700 a month a year ago to the present level 1,400.
Emmanuel Agius, deputy mayor of Calais, said: “The British frontier is now here in Calais. It is not reasonable. We do not have control over the situation.”
For their part, migrants who evaded the round up operation said the enforcement action would not deter them from their ultimate goal of reaching Britain, adding that the police action only served to underline their conviction that they had no future in France.
Two weeks ago Adam Joseph, 45, a South Sudanese farmer who paid $6,000 for a hellish journey across Africa and the Mediterranean to reach the Channel, was shot in the back by a suspected far right vigilante as he slept in the food distribution area.
The Independent found him wandering the streets. He said: “It’s scary for us when this happens. We are not bad people so why send in these robo-cops while we sleep? We get shot at, we get raided. Just let us live with a little dignity while we try to go where we want to go.”
Campaigners said the raid represented the failure of both Britain and France to deal with the issues that make Calais a magnet for the aspirations of thousands seeking a new life.
Mateus Ferri, a volunteer who works with the refugees, said: “This is a shame for the whole of Europe, including Britain and France. These people came here with a dream of a new life and a dream of freedom. And yet today we have this evacuation which looks closer to the Second World War than the 21st century. It makes me angry.”