In unprecedented scenes, hundreds of officers began a “clean-up” operation targeting the estimated 1,000 people sleeping rough in the port in northern France, where each night many try to smuggle themselves on to lorries heading to the UK.
It follows an expulsion order issued by the civil court of nearby Boulogne-sur-Mer following an increase in violence and anti-social behaviour among the migrants.
In August a journalism student from London was raped in one of the camps, known as The Jungle. There have also been stabbings during gang fights between different groups of migrants, with drug abuse and theft described by local police as “rampant”.
On Wednesday night gendarmes were joined by 250 armed riot squad officers to clear a camp that was temporary home to 350 Eritreans who were expected to try to claim asylum in the UK.
Side roads to their site—a disused hangar near the town’s station—were blocked off by police vans. Officers then went in, accompanied by immigration officials.
Some of the would-be migrants tried to escape over a wall, but most gave themselves up immediately.
Although mostly young men claiming to be refugees from the east African state of Eritrea, they also included 24 women and 10 young children. Two pregnant women were taken to hospital for checks.
Makeshift tents were smashed to pieces, with 40 council workers removing tons of rubbish. The break-up of the camp took under an hour, with crowds of migrants then being led to the Calais police headquarters.
But Gerard Gavory, the sub-prefect of Calais who was in charge of the expulsion, said: “The objective was not to arrest these people. Each was able to pick up their belongings and leave on their own accord if they wanted to.
“But later, we reminded them that there are other solutions to getting shelter.”
He admitted that while 80 of the migrants had been taken to a reception centre 40 miles from the town, most were simply freed and allowed to return to the streets of Calais.
Jean-Claude Lenoir, of the Calais refugee charity Salam, said: “Even the ones that accepted the accomodation probably only did so to get a couple of nights sleep and a hot meal.
“The whole thing was a waste of time, as within two days they will all be back in Calais again looking for another building to squat in.
“It just proves that a proper hostel is needed in Calais to look after the basic humanitarian needs of these people.”
“The have absolutely nowhere to go now, except to Britain.”
The “clean-up” operations have started following the election of Natacha Bouchart, the new mayor and a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Right-wing UMP party.
Last week both she and the immigration minister Brice Hortefeux ruled out “any possibility” of the building of a new Sangatte-style welcome centre for migrants heading for Britain. He said that such a site “would attract illegal immigrants and the traffickers who prey on them”.
Miss Bouchart also promised to increase security around Calais.
They were speaking after a Roman Catholic charity was given provisonal planning permission to build a new shelter in the town.
Secours Catholique wants to convert a 5000 sq ft industrial building close to the port to include showers, a kitchen, and medical facilities. The facility was dubbed Sangatte II, after the notorious Red Cross centre near Calais which housed thousands of UK-bound migrants and was bulldozed as part of a deal between Britain and France in 2002.
Sher Hassan Jaabar, in his 20s and a migrant from Pakistan, is meanwhile set to be charged with the rape of the 31-year-old journalism student, who cannot be named for legal reasons.
Jaabar lived in The Jungle for some eight weeks before being arrested in nearby Dunkirk for having no papers last month. DNA has linked him to the scene of the rape, police said.