French police investigate migrant claims that British anarchists started fires in Calais ‘Jungle’, as demolition continues
British anarchists allegedly helped migrants to burn down the Calais “Jungle” on Wednesday as thousands of young men streamed out of the blazing camp amid the explosions of gas canisters.
Patrick Visser-Bourdon, the police chief leading the operation to demolish the squalid camp, said four Afghan migrants were arrested on suspicion of arson.
He said camp inhabitants claimed that members of a group known as “No Borders” had infiltrated the camp during the night, set off the first blazes and placed the gas canisters, which had been used for cooking, around the flames.
“We are investigating these claims, and trying to find those responsible,” Mr Visser-Bourdon said.
As the canisters erupted, the camp turned into an inferno. Terrified migrants gathered their belongings and fled as plumes of black smoke rose and most of the “Jungle” was reduced to ash and smouldering rubble.
The fires spread rapidly through makeshift wooden shacks and tents where thousands of migrants had lived while they tried to cross the Channel illegally to settle in Britain.
Hundreds of armed riot police wearing helmets, body armour and carrying shields stood by and surrounded the site after the migrants left.
Tony Sterry, a British volunteer, said: “It wasn’t migrants who started the fires. It was white activists from ‘No Borders’”.
The “No Borders” group has previously been blamed for inciting migrants to attack French police and to board the P&O ferry, the Spirit of Britain, in January. Its members believe all borders are racist and activists threatened to disrupt the destruction of the “Jungle” by attacking security forces.
Ismail, a 19-year-old Afghan migrant, said he saw activists placing gas cylinders on the roofs of huts and tents before setting fire to the canvas or wooden structures.
“We were scared of getting trapped in the fire so we quickly packed our things and left,” he said. Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais, said 150 to 200 ‘No Borders’ activists were believed to have come to the port town.
However, a gang of about eight migrants who hid their faces with scarves ran away from several blazes and hurled stones at emergency crews trying to extinguish the flames.
One youth picked up a fire extinguisher abandoned by firemen and used it to smash the windows of a parked white van near the centre of the camp.
British volunteers wearing orange jackets raced around desperately trying to extinguish the flames and gathering gas canisters. They piled the cylinders on the back of a pick-up and drove it to the edge of the camp.
In a surreal scene, a man who lives opposite the camp rode in on a white horse to observe the action. “I’ve had to put up with migrants trying to burgle my house and cutting through my fences for years,” said the man, who declined to be named.
As the deserted settlement that became a symbol of Europe’s migration crisis continued to burn, crowds of migrants milled about on its perimeter.
Christian Salomé, head of the French charity, L’Auberge des Migrants, said: “There are 4,000 people who’ve had to leave the camp today.”
Another 4,000 have already left voluntarily this week. They have been bussed to some 450 accommodation centres in towns across France.
“The others will have to go too,” Mr Salomé said. “I don’t think they’ll have any choice.”
Hundreds of unaccompanied children are being temporarily accommodated in converted shipping containers while they are screened by Home Office staff and French aid workers.
Many may be transferred to Britain if they are deemed eligible for resettlement on humanitarian grounds or because they have family members living in the country.
The containers, in a fenced-off enclosure amid the gutted and smouldering camp, will not be removed for the time being. The French authorities said the camp was empty but charity workers said about 300 children had been left on the edge of the camp.
“French and British officials told them the containers were full and they should go back to the camp,” said Catherine Wren, a volunteer. “The officials said they had stopped registering children to go to the UK and the children don’t know where to go.”
She said they had slept rough after a bus used as a shelter for women and children was burned down on Tuesday night.
Demolition of the sprawling shantytown began on Tuesday. For years it served as a base for migrants trying to cross the Channel illegally and settle in Britain.
Many claim to have relatives already in the country. The French government says it will clear all migrant camps in the Calais area. As well as the “Jungle,” there are several others within a radius of less than 100 miles.
The migrant crisis has persisted in the town for more than 20 years. It has now become an issue in the campaign for France’s presidential election in six months. The mayor said the destruction of the “Jungle” would not end the crisis as new migrants were still arriving in the area.
Britain should stop “provoking” France with “soft” immigration policies, says Calais deputy mayor
As demolition crews continued pulling apart the “Jungle” migrant camp, the deputy mayor of Calais urged Britain to stop “provoking” France with “soft” immigration policies and take a tougher line as the country prepares for Brexit.
Philippe Mignonet told reporters that tearing down the squalid shantytown was an example of the type of approach Britain should adopt as it gets ready to leave the European Union, rather than attracting new migrants with “generous” benefits and subsidised housing.
“The UK government says it does not want any more migrants but never expels migrants who get there,” Mr Mignonet said.
“They claim benefits and housing, and all we get is the British funded wall,’ he added, referring to a £2million structure under construction next to the “Jungle”.
It is designed to stop migrants climbing aboard UK-bound lorries, but Mr Mignonet said the wall was largely redundant now that the Jungle was disappearing.
Some 4,000 migrants have now been bussed out of the “Jungle” to accommodation centres across France. Officials hope the remaining 4000 will leave by the end of the week.
Mr Mignonet said the move should lead to the scrapping of the Touquet agreement allowing British border checks on the French side of the Channel.
Migrants wanting to go to Britain would then be dealt with in the UK, not in France, he said.
“The treaty has to be renegotiated. I’ve been saying that for a long time, but it’s not so easy,” Mr Mignonet said. “We have been provoked so many times by the British government.
“We have to work together, but there has to be more cooperation between the English government and the Calais authorities.
“It is too easy to say this or that, while sitting in an office in Paris or London. We have faced up to reality here – we have assumed our responsibilities.”
Mr Mignonet called on Britain to establish a closer working relationship with the Calais authorities before Brexit.
“One day the British prime minister should come over,” said Mr Mignonet, a member of the centre-Right party, The Republicans. “We invited David Cameron many times, and he never came. Theresa May can visit anytime she wants. She can come here and we would work together.
“If she wants, we have an airport close by, or she can come over on the high-speed shuttle. I have a car with dark windows, so she doesn’t have to be seen.
“Calais was once part of England, and we have often worked together in the past. We can work together again.
“The people of Britain made their choice about Brexit, and some of those choices mean they will face difficulty, but putting walls and fences up here is not right.
“What English city would accept a fence and a wall being built by another country on their land? If the British government want to improve matters, they should come and talk to the city of Calais.”
Mr Mignonet said Britain should consider buying the land freed by the demolition of the “Jungle” and use it as a base for British businesses trading in the EU.
“We’re going to level the land, and this is at the door of England, and near to the shuttle terminal for trucks. What better place for British businesses to come?”
However, the mayor of Calais, Natacha Bouchard, has warned that demolishing the camp will not end the migration crisis in the town as new migrants were still arriving and there was no guarantee other camps would not spring up.