Angelique Chrisafis and Peter Walker, Guardian, March 1, 2016
Clashes between police and migrants continued into Monday evening after authorities moved in earlier in the day to dismantle parts of the refugee camp known as the Jungle.
The homes of up to 200 people of the approximately 3,500 people living in the camp had been demolished by the middle of the day, according to a British refugee aid group, as smoke went up from blazes engulfing makeshift shelters.
Some homes appeared to have been set alight by the heat of teargas canisters fired at crowds by riot police, said a spokeswoman for the British volunteer group Help Refugees, while some residents seem to have set others on fire in protest.
Video footage from a volunteer inside the camp showed residents running away from clouds of teargas. Reuters said police fired teargas at about 150 people and activists who threw stones, and at least three shelters were on fire.
The clashes continued into the evening near a motorway heading to the port of Calais, where vehicles were blocked by migrants on the stretch of road overlooking a piece of ground which had previously been part of the camp.
Strewn with debris, the port road was eventually taken back by police, who arrested one person and three members of the No Borders activist group.
The work began in the early morning, with orange-vested work crews dismantling several dozen makeshift wood-and-tarpaulin shacks by hand before two diggers loaded the debris into large trucks. Police in riot gear shielded the work, and initially there were no reports of unrest beyond a report of one British activist being arrested.
Volunteer groups said the work began with officials telling residents they had an hour to leave before their home was demolished.
Reacting to the demolitions, Amnesty International said that both the French and UK governments had to live up to responsibilities in relation to those who were evicted, including facilitating access to asylum proceedings in France and visas to the UK for those with family members there.
“Although it’s taking place across the Channel, this is not an issue that the UK can wash its hands of,” said Amnesty International’s Europe and central Asia director, John Dalhuisen.
The prefecture of Calais, which late last week won a court battle allowing demolition to begin, wants to clear large parts of the southern part of the site on dune land just west of the town’s busy docks. It adjoins the road leading to the ferry terminal, a draw for those seeking to smuggle themselves on to trucks bound for the UK.
Volunteer groups have warned that moving people from the camp will do little but disperse many elsewhere around Calais. A UK-based group, the Refugee Rights Data Project, said that of the 460 residents asked what they would do if the camp was dismantled, 80% said they would remain in Calais or move to a more basic refugee encampment in nearby Dunkirk.
The study suggested authorities’ plans to evict people “is unlikely to provide a viable solution to the current humanitarian crisis on our doorstep”, said Marta Welander, the founder of the project.
Of those who lost their homes on Monday, some had moved into space elsewhere in the camp, Help Refugees said, while others had been seen carrying sleeping bags into Calais. “We don’t really know yet what people will do, but it seems likely some will just be dispersed to other areas around Calais,” a spokeswoman said.
Clare Moseley, of Care4Calais, another British volunteer group, said prefecture officials arrived at the camp at 7am and gave residents an hour’s notice to leave or face arrest. “The police presence is massive,” she said. “They have the whole area cordoned off.” French media reported that about 40 vans of riot police were in position near the site.
Help Refugees said some of its volunteers had been blocked on Monday morning from entering the camp, home to refugees and migrants from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan and Egypt.
A spokeswoman said the demolition began in a section of the camp with a mostly Iranian population: “People were being told they had to leave,” she said, “otherwise they would be arrested. A lot of people seemed quite confused.”
A spokesman for the Calais prefecture denied there was a vast new clearing operation under way. He said French officials from asylum agencies and other state agencies would continue to go from tent to tent to talk to talk to migrants about their options, as they had done last week.
He said: “There is a reinforced police presence today to allow those officials to enter and talk to people. But this is a gradual process which will take place over several days and weeks. There will be no bulldozers.”
Fabienne Buccio, the head of the Calais prefecture, said three-quarters of the homes in the southern part of the camp were now empty after officials encouraged residents to leave over recent days.
Police were needed, she said, in case what she described as “extremists” tried to stop migrants accepting offers of new accommodation or buses to centres elsewhere in France.
French authorities said earlier this month they intended to bulldoze half of the main camp, warning between 800 and 1,000 migrants and refugees to leave a seven-hectare southern section of the site. Buccio previously told Le Monde she intended to reduce the size of the camp by about half.
Care4Calais is among the groups that have opposed the dismantlement plans in the French courts. A legal appeal against last Thursday’s ruling had been lodged last week, Moseley said, and was expected to be heard soon.
A Help Refugees spokeswoman said Monday’s work did appear to be the start of wider clearance. “That’s what it’s looking like. They did say it’s going to be slow and respectful, giving people options, and I suppose they have in a way. But at the same time they’re not giving people access to information. One person was seen being given their options as their shelter was being dismantled, so the respect they talked about last week isn’t really happening.”
While some residents have moved into shipping container shelters and a small number have left on state-provided coaches to centres elsewhere in France, many more than the official estimate of 800 to 1,000 people remained inside the main camp. A census carried out by two charities recorded 3,455 people living there, with one group telling the Guardian this week that this included 445 children, of whom 305 were unaccompanied.