By Matthias Blamont
CALAIS, France Sept 5 – Two convoys of trucks and tractors slowed traffic to a crawl on the motorway approach to France’s northern port of Calais on Monday, with protesters demanding the closure of a migrants camp they blame for mounting insecurity and an ailing local economy.
Dubbed the “jungle”, the squalid camp is a half-way house for thousands of migrants fleeing war, poverty and oppression who dream of reaching Britain’s shores on the other side of the English channel.
It currently houses somewhere between 7,000 to 9,000.
The repeated efforts of its inhabitants to force their way through the Channel Tunnel or stow away aboard trucks passing through the port have disrupted traffic across the vital link between France and Britain, while locals say the violent shanty town is strangling the economy.
“More and more of us want to sell our licences. But it’s dead here, no one comes into Calais anymore,” said one 46-year-old taxi driver who gave his name as Raymond.
Under a steady drizzle of rain, some protesters wore high visibility jackets while others showed up in T-shirts with the inscription “J’aime Calais”.
Frederic Van Gansbeke, head of an umbrella group of local businesses, said the government had ignored pleas by local people in a town that has become a flashpoint in Europe’s migrant crisis.
Local police said the go-slow was over by 2 p.m. (1200 GMT) and that alternative routes had ensured minimal disruption to the flow of traffic to the busy ferry port.
Some protesters said they would keep blocking the motorway in the days to come until the government committed to a date to break up the rest of the camp.
The jungle has become the focus of an increasingly heated political debate in France and Britain after the British vote to exit the European Union.
In February and March this year, French authorities dismantled the southern half of the shanty town and dispersed some of its inhabitants.
The camp’s population has swollen to about 7,000 migrants from 4,500 in June, according to local authorities. Humanitarian groups put the number closer to 9,000.
Last week, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said French authorities would dismantle the rest, but gave no concrete timeframe, angering local opponents of the camp.
“We have to do this. We have to escalate things, because for months now the situation has been getting worse and worse,” said David Sagnard, president of FNTR national truck drivers’ federation, as the convoys, each with about 40 vehicles, set off.
“Before, it was just attempts to get on trucks. Now there is looting and wilful destruction, tarpaulins are slashed, goods stolen or destroyed,” he said. “Drivers go to work with fear in their bellies and the economic consequences are severe.”
Some French opposition politicians have also called for the ditching of an agreement under which border controls take place on the French side of the sea, saying Britain should handle the problem.