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Calais: No good options

The saga of migrants stuck in Calais continued in September with a raid on their camp.

Aftha Gool, 25, an Afghan migrant, sleeps on the ground near the city hall of Calais, Sept. 23, 2009. Gool returned to Calais from Lille police station after he was caught by police during the dismantling of an improvised camp dubbed "the jungle." Gool had lived in "the jungle" the past eight months. (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

PARIS, France — Inaction was not an option, according to Eric Besson, the immigration minister who spearheaded the recent effort to dismantle a camp of undocumented migrants in Calais. Hundreds of migrants had gathered there, hoping to make it to the United Kingdom. 

During a speech following the late September raid, Besson said the makeshift tents in a Calais area known as “the jungle” was a blight without sanitation or running water, where a “scabies epidemic” had developed and where the rule of law belonged to smugglers. The area had become a convenient cover for criminals and their sometimes-violent racket of extracting huge sums for smuggling humans across the English Channel. Moreover, criminal activity was starting to spill over beyond the camp. 

“Children have been attacked on the way to school,” Besson said, in a transcript provided on the ministry’s website. “Intrusions and thefts are increasing. Neighboring businesses can no longer work normally.”  But his promise to restore the rule of law fell flat. The newspaper Liberation lampooned Besson for playing “good cop” with certain immigration policies and “bad cop” with others. Critics said the raid, while an impressive show of force, failed to offer any real long-term solution to the problems that have plagued the area ever since the government closed the Red Cross-run Sangatte refugee camp in the Pas-de-Calais region in 2002. 

Announced a week in advance, the operation on the morning of Sept. 22 assembled 500 police and gendarmes — along with 30 Farsi and Pashto-speaking interpreters — to detain 276 people, some of who were led away in tears. Volunteers said a great number of the mostly Afghan migrants had already fled ahead of the arrival of authorities. Nonetheless, the spectacle attracted a throng of journalists as well as protesters, some of whom clashed with police in front of television cameras. 

It was not clear if any smugglers were arrested during the raid, but Besson, in his remarks, said an ongoing investigation had already led to the pre-raid arrests of three of the five main smugglers operating in the area, who allegedly were responsible for about 100 illegal passages per month into the U.K. Migrants believe immigration rules are more tolerant in Britain, and that they can more easily find jobs and get a foothold in society there.