Authorities in Calais have begun dismantling the sprawling refugee camp outside the northern French town known as the “Jungle”, with some clashes reportedly breaking out and riot police using tear gas.
Orange-vested work crews painstakingly dismantled 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.
Video footage from a volunteer inside the camp showed residents running away from clouds of tear gas. Reuters said police fired tear gas at about 150 migrants and activists who threw stones, with three shelters set on fire.
Volunteer groups said an estimated 60 or 70 of the approximately 3,500 people living in the camp had seen their shelters or tents removed. They said removal work began early on Monday morning, with officials telling residents they had an hour to leave before their home was demolished.
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 migrants seeking to smuggle themselves onto 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 460 Jungle 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, founder of the Refugee Rights Data Project.
Of those who lost their homes on Monday, some had moved into space elsewhere in the camp, a spokeswoman for British volunteer group 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,” she said.
Clare Moseley, of British volunteer group Care4Calais, 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 earlier this week that this included 445 children, of whom 305 were unaccompanied.