France plans to close MSF-built migrant camp

Claire GALLEN
The French government plans to close down the Grande-Synthe camp as soon as possible

The French government said Wednesday it plans to dismantle a migrant camp built by humanitarian group MSF on its northern coast, less than six months after clearing a separate camp in nearby Calais.

Speaking at a French senate hearing, Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux said security forces would close the Grande-Synthe facility near the port of Dunkirk "as soon as possible" after a series of violent clashes there.

Its wooden cabins, home to about 1,500 migrants and refugees, most of them Kurds, were opened in March 2016 by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) over the objections of the central government.

"It's no longer just a question of re-establishing public order" in the camp, Le Roux said.

France will proceed with a "progressive dismantling of the camp which should start as soon as possible," he said, adding that "we can't let things continue like this."

For more than a decade, France's northern coast has been a magnet for refugees and migrants trying to reach Britain, with French authorities repeatedly tearing down shantytowns in the area.

After fleeing war or poverty, men, women and children gather near ports where they seek to break into trucks heading to Britain or pay smugglers to help them get across the Channel.

The issue is a constant source of friction between Britain and France and an embarrassment for the French government, which has been criticised by the United Nations refugee agency for failing to provide adequate accommodation.

In October last year, police began dismantling the so-called "Jungle" camp near Calais, which was home to thousands, sending its residents to accommodation around France, leading to a backlash from some far-right mayors.

- Mayor unaware -

The mayor of Grande-Synthe, an environmentalist who encouraged MSF to build the camp, told AFP he was unaware of the government's plans to tear down the facility, billed as France's only "international standard" camp when it opened.

"I'm very surprised and I don't agree," Damien Careme told AFP after Le Roux's announcement, adding that there had been some minor violence on Tuesday night during a demonstration but saying it did not justify the closure.

"You can easily see that we play an essential role (in helping migrants and refugees) and I don't see how you can stop this," he said.

Police intervened at the start of the month in Grande-Synthe after five men were injured during a fight in which knives were used and gunshots were reported. Another man was stabbed in November.

The government believes the camps encourage people to travel there, causing a major security problem, and urges migrants instead to register asylum applications in France and seek shelter in facilities elsewhere.

Repeated break-ins around ports have caused delays to travellers and truck drivers, while local residents also complain about disruption and damage done to the image of their area.

The Socialist government, which is determined to try to stop another camp from springing up in Calais, has criticised Britain for reneging on a deal to resettle hundreds of underage migrants from the camp.

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