Denis Charlet / AFP / Getty Images

Evictions in France, storming in Spain underline EU tensions over migrants

French riot police dismantle Calais camp, while in Spanish exclave thousands force entry

French riot police have started evacuating and dismantling three migrant camps in the northern port town of Calais, potentially inflaming tensions just days after the anti-immigrant National Front won key gains in a European Union election. It comes as European countries continue to grapple with the issue; a Spanish exclave in North Africa also became a flashpoint Wednesday as hundreds of would-be migrants broke into the territory.

The French evictions, which authorities have said were necessary due to public health and safety concerns, were denounced by local rights organizations and those camped there in the hope of making the crossing to the United Kingdom.

"This is sad, and it changes nothing," said Jalal, an Iraqi in his 20s who watched as police moved in. "I'll move my tent somewhere else ... but I am staying put [in Calais]. What else can I do? I will try again to make the crossing. I did not come here just to give up now."

Calais has for years attracted a high number of immigrants who flee poverty or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, many of them hoping to cross the narrow sea channel to Britain by ferry or the sub-sea train tunnel.

Many of the estimated 600 to 800 immigrants living in the three camps had moved out before the well-publicized evacuation ordered by Denis Robin, prefect for the Pas-de-Calais region.

Pas-de-Calais is in northwestern France, where the far-right National Front won 34 percent of the vote in Sunday's EU election — one of its best tallies and a tripling of its score from the 2009 vote.

The party has long campaigned for a dramatic reduction in immigration and opposes the Schengen borderless zone at the heart of the 28-member European Union.

Crossing into Europe

Meanwhile, in Spain's North African exclave of Melilla, hundreds of people forced their way through razor-wire barriers on Wednesday, highlighting increasing pressure on a rare land-based route into Europe for illegal migrants.

Spain has been beset by its own challenges related to immigration and, like France, has requested that other countries in Europe share the burden. 

More than 1,000 stormed fences into the exclave around 12:00 a.m. ET and about 400 had managed to breach the border, the Spanish city's Mayor Juan Jose Imbroda said in a radio interview.

Immigrants from all over Africa regularly attempt to cross the fences at Melilla and a second Spanish exclave along the coast, Ceuta. Both are surrounded by Moroccan territory and the Mediterranean Sea.

Spain has beefed up security there in recent months as numbers have swelled, in part in response to increased naval patrols that are discouraging attempts to get to Europe by boat.

"There were waves [of people], they were difficult to stop," Imbroda told Spanish radio. "Moroccan police collaborated quite a bit, but the pressure was great, a chunk of the exterior fence gave way."

In March about 500 people forced their way across the Melilla border, and around 2,000 have breached the barriers so far this year, up from just over 1,000 for the whole of 2013.

The immigrants who got into Melilla on Wednesday were heading for the city's temporary migration center, where they are usually fed and given clothes.

The center is designed to take in 500 people but is already sheltering about 2,000. Some of those processed there make it across to mainland Spain, while others are returned to Morocco.

France, Spain and Italy have attempted to persuade their European neighbors to bear a greater share of the increasing immigration burden, but talks on an EU-wide solution to the problem have made little progress.

Last October more than 360 people drowned within sight of Lampedusa, an Italian island off Tunisia that has long been a magnet for migrants, and in May a migrant boat sank in the sea between Libya and southern Sicily, causing at least 14 deaths.

In February, the EU asked Spain to explain why police had fired rubber bullets in warning when a group of African migrants tried to wade and swim to Ceuta. Fifteen drowned. Spain has said the migrants were not targeted by the shots.

Al Jazeera and wire services

Related News

France, Spain
Immigration, Migrants

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


France, Spain
Immigration, Migrants

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter