The UK must make an effort to solve the refugee problem at Calais and across Europe, the French president, François Hollande, has said during a visit to the port town.
Hollande said he wanted the town’s notorious refugee camp – home to up to 10,000 people including 1,000 lone children – to be “completely and definitively dismantled”.
Closing down the camp would be an “exceptional operation prompted by exceptional circumstances” and the UK had to take some responsibility, he said.
“I would like to express my determination to see the British authorities play their part in the humanitarian effort that France is carrying out here and will continue to carry out in the days to come,” Hollande declared.
“Just because the United Kingdom has taken a sovereign decision, [that] does not absolve it of its obligations towards France,” he added, referring to the Brexit vote and the Le Touquet bilateral agreement signed in 2003, which in effect established Britain’s border controls at Calais.
France is trying to find 9,000 new places at “welcome centres” across the country to receive those living in the camp before the beginning of winter.
Many have been offered the chance to apply for French nationality, but would prefer to take their chances by stowing away on a boat or lorry to reach Britain.
Hollande also sent a strong message to the people smugglers, known in French as “passeurs”, saying: “No more smuggling.”
“It is useless to bring here a population who don’t known where to go or who just hope to get to the other side of the Channel. We have to fight against these networks who are dealing in human beings, which is the worst, the most dishonorable business, which goes way back and exists until now simply to exploit people in a situation of extreme vulnerability.
“The state will do its duty and will continue to do so right up until the dismantling of the camp at Calais and afterwards to avoid the situation we had on other occasions, when camps were dismantled then reformed and when people were dispersed, adding disorganisation to the security problem.”
This was a dig at his predecessor and rival for the 2017 presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy, who oversaw the dismantling of the Sangatte camp near Calais in September 2002.
Sarkozy, who is one of the frontrunners for the opposition Les Républicains’ nomination as candidate for next year’s presidential election, has called for the complete renegotiation of the Le Touquet agreement.
He suggested Britain should set up a “hotspot” centre to deal with refugees and asylum seekers on its own side of the Channel.
“Because most of these foreigners come to Calais to get to Great Britain, I want our British friends from now on to treat those who want to demand asylum over there in a closed centre in Great Britain and equally to send back those whose demands are refused,” Sarkozy said during a visit to Calais last week.
Lily Caprani, Unicef UK’s deputy executive director, called on Britain to act to help lone children stuck in the camp, who she said were prey to child traffickers.
“For refugee children, who left their homes fleeing conflict and persecution, the pending demolition of the camp threatens their hopes of reaching their families in the UK.
“It is now more urgent than ever for our government to get these children to safety.
“Before the bulldozers arrive, there must be robust plans to safeguard the hundreds of unaccompanied children currently stranded in the camp. If mistakes from the first eviction are repeated, we will see more children going missing, falling prey to traffickers and facing the winter without a home.
“The UK must work with the French authorities to get children into appropriate accommodation, where they can have access to care and legal support so they can reach their families safely. The public have told us loud and clear that they want this issue to be addressed quickly so we urge the home secretary to take immediate action to reunite these children with their families.”
Hollande’s visit to Calais was supposed to take place before the summer, but was cancelled following the terrorist attacks in Nice, where an Islamic State sympathiser ploughed a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day, killing 84 people, and the knife attack on a Catholic priest near Rouen in Normandy shortly afterwards.