Police fired tear gas and used water cannons as they clashed with migrants and activists in Calais, as authorities began dismantling part of the notorious “Jungle” camp.
The unrest began Monday evening as labourers – under heavy police protection – moved in to start pulling down the makeshift shelters in the shantytown. Two bulldozers stood by but were not used.
The demolition of the southern half of the camp began after a court petition by charities to stop it was rejected last week.
Migrants and members of the British “No Borders” activist group, who launched projectiles at the police, set fire to about 20 of the shelters, according to an AFP photographer and running clashes continued late into the afternoon.
Three members of “No Borders” and one migrant were arrested, according to local officials.
Regional Prefect Fabienne Buccio had said earlier that the heavy police presence was needed because “extremists” could try to intimidate migrants into turning down housing offers or buses to reception centers.
Local authority head Fabienne Buccio accused No Borders activists of threatening staff who had been sent to the camp on Friday in a bid to convince migrants to leave the camp for official shelters.
Volunteers, charities and aid workers have spent months trying to improve the living conditions in the camp, built on a former toxic waste dump on the outskirts of the port town.
“It’s infinitely sad to see the waste of so much work that we’ve done in the past months,” said Maya Konforti of the Auberge des Migrants (Migrants’ Hostel) charity.
Local authorities, who have promised that no one will be evacuated by force, say 3,700 people live in the camp, and that between 800 and 1,000 will be affected by the eviction.
But charities say a recent census they conducted counted at least 3,450 people in the southern part alone, including 300 unaccompanied children.
Thousands of migrants fleeing war and poverty, from Afghanistan to Syria, have converged on the northern port over the past year in the hope of reaching the UK.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said last week that authorities would work with humanitarian organizations to relocate the migrants to a nearby park of converted shipping containers or other reception centers around France.
However the migrants feel that leaving the Jungle would mean giving up their hopes of Britain, which they are drawn to by family or community ties, because of a shared language, or because they think they have a greater chance of finding work there. Daily they attempt to sneak aboard trains, lorries and ferries bound for the UK.
“These people want to reach Britain and won’t leave.” Konforti explained.
Buccio said three-quarters of the shacks in the southern half of the camp were now empty after the court order on Thursday.
Fearing that many of the migrants evicted from the Calais camp would instead seek refuge in Belgium, Brussels last week announced it was reinstating its border controls with France.
Belgium has deployed around 300 police, including officers on horseback, to enforce the border controls with France.