Hundreds cleared from migrant camp near English Channel as the UK and France seek to curb crossings

The clearance operation comes after record numbers of migrants were intercepted attempting to make the crossing to Britain

French gendarmes walk by tents during the evacuation of the Grande Synthe migrant camp, northern France, on September 17, 2019. / AFP / FRANCOIS LO PRESTI
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French police on Tuesday began an operation to clear around 1,000 migrants from a makeshift camp in Dunkirk, near the English Channel.

The operation began shortly after 8am local time when large numbers of police, some wearing riot gear, closed off roads and put barriers up around a gymnasium and tents serving as temporary accommodation.

Five men were arrested after buses carrying the migrants were stopped on a road near the camp.

The Nord prefecture called it a “minor incident” and there are reports that windows were broken and threats made by some of the passengers.

The gymnasium was opened to migrants sheltering from cold weather by the mayor of Grande-Synthe in December 2018.

The migrants are thought mainly to be Iraqi Kurds hoping to reach Britain.

A court in the French city of Lille ordered the camp and the gymnasium to be shut after local authorities and residents complained of violence and unsanitary conditions.

Migrants fleeing poverty and conflict have long congregated in towns along the French coast in hopes of crossing the English Channel to Britain.

The clearance operation comes after more than 120 migrants were intercepted off the British coast in the space of a week.

On Sunday, 41 migrants, believed to be from Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey and Mali, were stopped by the UK coastguard in the English Channel.

UK border officials then intercepted some 86 men, women and children attempting to reach Britain by crossing the Channel on September 10.

It is believed to be the highest number of migrants intercepted on the Channel crossing in a single day.

In July, UK home secretary Priti Patel announced plans to toughen up the UK’s immigration system and in late August met with French interior minister Christophe Castener in Paris.

According to the French interior ministry, the UK home secretary discussed, with her opposite number, the “possibility of British financial support” to help curb the number of migrants attempting the dangerous Channel crossing.

The number of attempted crossings had "grown in magnitude" since October 2018 and their number was still "significant" during the summer, the French interior ministry said in a statement following the meeting.

Financial support from London would serve to "reinforce patrols and improve their effectiveness", Mr Castaner said.

UK immigration officials and border police are believed to be working in conjunction with French officials to clear the camp.

According to French maritime authority figures, 586 migrants attempted to reach Britain by crossing the Channel in 2018, but the number to have attempted the crossing in 2019 is already thought to have passed 1,500.

On Monday, The European border agency Frontex reported that during August the number of illegal border crossing on Europe’s main migratory routes rose 9 per cent over the previous month.

The agency noted, however, that the total number of illegal border crossings detected during the first 8 months of 2019 was 26 per cent lower than the same period in 2018.

On Monday evening, French president Emmanuel Macron signalled he would take a tougher line on immigration, arguing that to prevent voters drifting to the far-right the government must end its "laxist" approach.

Mr Macron said his Republic on the Move (LREM) party risked being seen as “bourgeois” unless it takes a strong stance on immigration.