The French government will pursue a 12-year-old cat and mouse game with migrants in Calais by destroying a camp of makeshift tents and huts called "The Jungle" over the next few days.
The announcement by the immigration minister, Eric Besson, was greeted with anger and derision yesterday by migrant aid groups in the Calais area. They said the police assault on The Jungle, expected before the end of next week, was driven by French and British politics and would do nothing to resolve the problem of illegal emigration to Britain.
The French government and the aid groups say the build-up of migrants in Calais – mostly Afghans but also Iraqis, Eritreans, Palestinians and Egyptians – has slowed. The number of young men, boys and a few women in the woodland close to the ferry port is estimated to have fallen to 300, from 700 in early summer and a peak of 1,000 last year.
Mr Besson said the reduction could be traced to a new approach by French officials this year, which has persuaded scores of migrants to go home or to apply for asylum in France. He said there was a "drift" of asylum-seekers towards ports in Belgium and the Netherlands because Calais and other French ports had become so difficult to penetrate.
Officials also believe the flow of migrants has slowed because word of the economic problems in Britain, once regarded as an "El Dorado" for job-seekers, has finally trickled through to villages in Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East.
All the more reason, say charity groups working with immigrants, not to harass the asylum-seekers in The Jungle. "It is ridiculous to pursue this policy of dismantling squats without offering the migrants any alternative," said Abbé Jean-Pierre Boutoille, of C-Sur, an umbrella group for humanitarian workers in the Calais area. "If you drive them out, the Afghans will just go 100m or 200m away. Ever since the Sangatte [official Red Cross refugee] camp was closed in 2003, squats are always being cleared and closed but it changes nothing at all."
Since that closure, The Jungle has become a rubbish and excreta-strewn patchwork of huts and tents made from brushwood, container pallets, tarpaulins and plastic bags. Aid groups said the timing of this week's announcement seemed to have been an attempt to smoothe relations between Mr Besson, a former Socialist, and parliamentarians of President Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party.
Centre-right deputies introduced a legal amendment in 2007 which requires the DNA testing of would-be legal immigrants trying to join family members. Mr Besson said this was "inoperable" and would be ignored. Since he became immigration minister in January, he has tried a carrot-and-stick approach.
Migrants have been harassed but they have also been told of their rights to seek asylum in France and offered a chance to be repatriated. The minister claims that, in the past six months, 30 people-smuggling networks have been broken up and 180 migrants have "chosen" to return home.
A further 170, he said, were seeking asylum in France, which means, under international law, that they can never seek asylum in Britain.Reuse content