PARIS — The French government has decided to dismantle the overcrowded migrant camp in the northern port city of Calais “in a controlled operation” as soon as possible, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Friday.
Cazeneuve made the announcement during a visit to Calais, but gave no date for the closure.
His visit came three days before local businesses, dockers, truckers and farmers block a major highway to demand that the camp now holding record numbers of migrants, most trying to cross the English Channel, be shut down.
The minister met with local officials, business representatives and some of the 2,000 police officers who man roadways, the Eurotunnel train site and the port to keep migrants from hopping trucks to Britain.
“I think we must now take a supplementary step, proceeding with this dismantling for humanitarian reasons … in a controlled operation as rapidly as possible,” Cazeneuve said after the talks.
The state estimated the number of migrants living in the makeshift camp in August at nearly 7,000, while aid groups put the count at more than 9,000. The camp was reduced in size by half in March, when the southern sector was razed.
Authorities have said the camp must be fully dismantled, but protesters want a date. They say migrants have become an economic drain on the city and a stain on Calais’ image.
Even without saying when, Cazeneuve’s announcement was the fullest account yet of the state’s intentions regarding the squalid camp. It appeared likely that his reference to a “controlled operation” means that housing — outside the Calais region — would be found before the camp is destroyed.
The minister said in an interview published Friday in the Nord Littoral newspaper that dismantling the camp is the goal but he wants it done “in stages.” The bid to demolish the 72 shops and restaurants in the makeshift camp was a first step, he said. A court halted the plan but the state has appealed.
“It’s more than a relief,” said Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart. She has long asked the state to bring in the army to deal with migrants who each night venture into the roadways to try to hop trucks cross the English Channel to Britain.
Overcrowding has increased tensions between migrants, and two died in fights within a month. Seven others were killed this year on the roads.
Cazeneuve said he had discussed the issue with British Home Secretary Amber Rudd during her visit to Paris this week and would do so again in two weeks when he goes to Britain, adding without explanation, “because on this subject I want, of course, that we go to the end of this with the British.”
The French-British Touquet accords effectively moved Britain’s border to northern France, which shoulders the burden of the migrants, and there are increasing calls to do away with them.
Tensions are rising among Calais locals and those with a stake in its economy. They plan to use their vehicles to block the A16 highway on Monday, a move aimed at paralyzing traffic on the route used to access the Eurotunnel and port.
Aid groups fear any quick dismantling of the camp will increase chaos and create a bigger humanitarian crisis than the one at hand.
“Asking for the dismantling of the camp today would mean a worsening of the situation instead of solving the problems,” said Francois Guennoc of Auberge des Migrants, one of a handful of aid groups that warned in an open letter that razing the camp would scatter migrants and aggravate the situation protesters deplore.
The groups called on the French government to demand that Britain shoulder its responsibility — or threaten an end to the Touquet accords, signed in 2003. Undoing them would return British police, customs officials and sniffer dogs to their home across the English Channel — and put the onus on Britain to screen migrants wanting to live there.