France says it will begin soon completely destroying the sprawling “Jungle” camp in the northern port city of Calais, home to thousands of refugees waiting to cross into Britain.
"The dismantlement will begin when all the conditions for success are in place,” Housing Minister Emmanuelle Cosse told the French Liberationdaily in comments published on Friday.
Local officials say some 5,700 asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and Asia are currently residing in the “Jungle” in various encampments in Calais around the Channel Tunnel, the undersea passage into the UK. Charities, however, have estimated the number at up to 10,000.
The camp is grappling with problems such as overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and food shortages.
Cosse said it was "out of the question to leave these people living any longer in that mud and that distress," warning that another winter in the Jungle was "impossible." She didn't say what the next plans w
ere for their settlement.
President Francois Hollande has already said "the Jungle" refugee camp will be totally removed by the end of the year, but no exact date has yet been set for the process. He has vowed to set up "reception and orientation centers" across the country to take in asylum seekers.
Earlier this week, almost a dozen French charities sought a court order to block the planned demolition, deeming it an attack on fundamental rights. They called for a delay in the closure, saying authorities were not ready to relocate the refugees.
The ramshackle camp is base to 1,300 unaccompanied minors living there. On Friday, the UN refugee agency voiced concerns that lone children were at risk of trafficking if not adequately supported during the dislocation.
The agency's spokesman Adrian Edwards said asylum seekers should be informed of when the dismantling would begin and urged the French government to organize appropriate accommodation for refugees leaving the Calais camp.
"The Jungle" has become a symbol of Europe's struggle to respond to its biggest influx of asylum seekers since World War II, as people flee conflict-ridden zones in Africa and the Middle East.
Many blame major European powers for the unprecedented exodus, saying their policies have led to a surge in terrorism and war in the violence-hit regions, forcing more people out of their homes.
More than 317,200 asylum seekers have reached Europe via the Mediterranean so far this year, while over 3,630 people died or went missing in their perilous journey to the continent, according to the latest figures by the International Organization of Migration.