PARIS (Reuters) - France will start removing migrants on Monday from a squalid north-coast camp known as the Jungle and expects to dismantle it in the space of a week, an interior ministry official said on Friday.
The ramshackle camp at Calais houses thousands of migrants and refugees attempting to make it to Britain, which bars most of them on the basis of EU rules requiring them to seek asylum in the first European country they set foot in.
“It is an operation that carries risk,” the official said in a briefing to reporters, describing the plan to remove the 6,486 migrants from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea and distribute them to centres across France.
With its improvised shacks and poor sanitation, the Jungle has become a symbol of Europe’s failure to solve the migration crisis and a sore point in relations between Britain and France.
Announcing its planned closure last month, President Francois Hollande described the situation there as “unacceptable”. A French court this week dismissed a legal challenge by charities who had sought more time to come up with alternative housing.
The ministry official said migrants will have to present themselves at a giant hangar where they will be separated into families, adults, unaccompanied minors and vulnerable individuals, including elderly people and single women.
They will then be bused to a network of 450 reception centres across the country, where they will receive medical checks and, if they have not already done so, decide whether to apply for asylum.
Some 1,250 police and gendarmes will oversee the operation, and any migrants who refuse to move on risk being arrested, the official said.
She said France and Britain were advancing in negotiations over the fate of 1,300 unaccompanied children and youths in the camp. Britain has prioritised allowing entry to those with family ties in the UK, and this week allowed a small group of mostly Afghan teenagers to join relatives already in the country.
But France wants Britain to go further and honour a commitment it made to helping vulnerable child migrants in Europe.
“We’re making progress,” the official said. “We hope that there is a significant effort to complete all the family reunifications, and to go further.”
Tensions between the two countries are increasing over the future of border security as Britain prepares to leave the European Union.
French conservative Alain Juppe told The Guardian in an interview that he would scrap an agreement allowing British officials to check passports in France and vice-versa - a step that would make it easier for asylum-seekers to cross the Channel and force Britain to deal with them on its own soil.
“We cannot accept making the selection on French territory of people that Britain does or doesn’t want. It’s up to Britain to do that job,” he was quoted as saying.
The image of the Jungle was “disastrous for our country and there are also extremely serious economic and security consequences for the people of Calais”, said Juppe, the front-runner in next year’s presidential election.
Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Mark Trevelyan