PARIS: France plans to demolish the so-called “Jungle” camp in Calais, with work set to start next week. Here are five key questions to explain what’s at stake:
What is the ‘Jungle’?
It’s a collection of tents and shelters on a muddy, windswept patch of land near Calais, northern France, that has become a magnet for migrants seeking to cross the Channel to reach Britain.
Various squalid settlements have existed for decades around the gritty town that is home to one of the country’s biggest ports and the Channel Tunnel rail link connecting France and Britain.
In 1999, the Sangatte refugee camp run by the Red Cross was set up to manage the flow of migrants, but this was shut down three years later by then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
The 700 to 800 inhabitants, mainly Afghan migrants, moved to a new location that became known as the “Jungle”.
Hundreds of police demolished this site in September 2009 despite protests by anti-globalisation activists and leftist groups.
From April 2015, a new “Jungle” camp emerged as hundreds of thousands of people headed to Europe from the Middle East and Africa in the continent’s biggest migrant crisis since World War II.
The population of mainly Afghans, Iraqis, Eritreans and Sudanese has peaked at more than 10,000, according to local charities, but in its final days was believed to be around half that number.
The camp is near to where thousands of lorries drive on to ferries or trains heading for Britain, just 35 kilometres (22 miles) across the water.
Despite the dangers, desperate migrants try to break into the vehicles and hide. Those with money pay people smugglers to arrange the crossing.
Rather than apply for asylum in France, most have preferred to head to Britain for a variety of reasons.
Some have family networks there, while others are attracted to Britain’s reputation as a more economically vibrant country. The English language is also a big draw.
As the demolition approaches, more and more residents have begun seeking asylum in France, seeing it as the only way to avoid deportation.
How bad is it?
For the migrants, conditions are bleak. Sanitation is limited and illnesses spread easily. Women and children risk sexual violence, while brawls and deadly road accidents are commonplace.
For the local economy, the repeated targeting of trucks has seriously disrupted traffic at the port and Channel tunnel.
Locals complain about the image of their town, and Calais bars and restaurants say their trade has been severely hit. Protesters blocked roads in September to demand the closure of the camp.
The wretched conditions have also drawn criticism from the United Nations and charities, embarrassing the French government.
Why has it caused tension between Britain and France?
In 2003, the two countries signed the so-called Le Touquet accord, which effectively moved Britain’s border with France to the French side of the Channel.
Under the agreement, Britain pays millions of euros each year for security in Calais — the latest investment being a wall along the road leading to the port — but it is French police and border agents who are on the frontline.
Many French politicians believe London has simply outsourced a problem to France and the agreement should be torn up.
“We can’t tolerate what is going on in Calais, the image is disastrous for our country,” the centre-right frontrunner for next year’s presidential elections, Alain Juppe, said in an interview published this week.
The Socialist government has ruled out scrapping the agreement for now, but there are signs of frustration with Britain.
President Francois Hollande called on the British to “play their part” in September, while Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve reminded London of its “moral duty” to take in children from the camp believed to be numbered in the hundreds.
So is this the end?
In February, authorities razed the southern part of the camp and demanded that migrants living there move to temporary state-funded accommodation. Many refused.
On September 26, Hollande promised the camp would be closed by the end of the year and the government said it would relocate the Jungle migrants to accommodation around the country.
The plan prompted a right-wing mayor in the town of Beziers in southern France to put up posters warning “They’re coming”, depicting a group of dark-skinned men against the backdrop of the local cathedral.
The bigger question is whether history will repeat itself once the bulldozers have done their work. As one camp is demolished, will another spring up nearby?