GRANDE-SYNTHE, France (AP) — French police on Tuesday have evacuated migrants from a makeshift camp near Dunkirk, in northern France, where at least 1,500 people gathered in hopes of making it across the English Channel to Britain.
The Prefecture of the region said more than 400 people agreed to go to shelters. “The operation is continuing,” the statement said.
The operation is meant to send migrants into “adapted facilities” where they are to be informed of their rights, including the possibility to request asylum in France, it said.
In addition, 32 people suspected to be smugglers or to be involved in other criminal activities were being detained by police, the Prefecture du Nord said.
Migrants, including some families with young children, could be seen packing their few belongings as police were encircling the camp early Tuesday morning, on the site of a former industrial complex in Grande-Synthe, east of Dunkirk. Several buses were lined up near the camp.
Workers later started removing empty tents and cleaning up the site.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal, speaking on France Inter radio, said “when we are dismantling a migrant camp, that’s above all to put people into shelters, especially as winter comes.”
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and British Home Secretary Priti Patel said they had a phone call on Monday evening about the issue of small boats used by migrants to try to cross the Channel.
Patel tweeted that “we discussed a range of additional steps to tackle the problem and reiterated the importance of working together to make this deadly route unviable.”
“We are going to continue our operational cooperation and step up our common action against smugglers’ networks,” Darmanin tweeted.
He added that 1,308 people suspected of being smugglers have been arrested since the beginning of the year.
Aid group Utopia 56 said several evacuations of camps in the region have been organized in the past month with no adapted response to take care of migrants. The group stressed that the state organized no food distribution and provided no toilet and shower facilities in the camps.
Local authorities have warned of dire sanitary conditions and overcrowding in the area, risks associated with the fast approaching winter and deepening tensions between migrants and traffickers that often turn violent.
Yann Manzi, founder of Utopia 56, said those clustered in Grande Synthe are primarily Iraqi Kurds propelled via trafficking networks. Most are trying to cross the English Channel in small inflatable boats, because police have made it harder to sneak onto trucks and ferries.
With its ports and tunnel to cross the English Channel, northern France has always been a magnet for people seeking to cross to Britain, fueled by traffickers’ promises of a better life there. The crossings are a source of friction between the U.K. and France, with British officials saying France should do more to stop boats leaving. France, meanwhile, says Britain should do more to help French authorities manage the migrants and stop traffickers.
More than 23,000 people have reached the U.K. in small boats across the English Channel this year, including 1,185 on Thursday, a record for a single day. In addition, thousands more were rescued at sea by French maritime authorities.