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France demolishes Paris refugee camp after Calais

Many migrants confused where they would be taken as government-chartered buses ship them to shelters across France
Migrants sit in front of policemen stand next to a bus during an evacuation of a makeshift camp near Stalingrad metro station in Paris (AFP)

Hundreds of French police began dismantling a huge migrant camp in northeast Paris on Friday in a fresh sign of the government's determination to take refugees off the streets and into shelters.

The clearance of the camp in the Stalingrad area of the city, home to up to 3,000 migrants, came less than two weeks after the demolition of the notorious "Jungle" camp in northern Calais.

Starting at dawn, police arrived to wake up people sleeping in tents or on mattresses out in the open under an overhead metro line, 15 minutes' walk from the Gare du Nord railway station.

The evacuation started calmly and in orderly fashion, with many migrants confused about where they would be taken on government-chartered buses but there were no signs of resistance or violence.

"Where are they taking people? Somewhere in Paris or outside?" worried Abderrahmane, a 19-year-old from Guinea.

The area around Stalingrad, a gritty multi-ethnic area of the capital, is a magnet for migrants arriving in Paris and has been repeatedly cleared by police, only to spring back into life days later.

But six months before elections, Socialist President Francois Hollande has said he is determined to take refugees off the streets and has said France needs to show them a better welcome.

While activists have welcomed this fresh political will to tackle a long-standing problem, they stress that France has been slow to react to a crisis that has grown in intensity over the last two years.

It has lagged other countries, Germany in particular, in providing appropriate lodgings for refugees to seek safety.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has announced the city's first government refugee camp, which will have an initial capacity for 400 men. It is set to open this month in a disused railway yard in the north of the capital.

The arrival of the first bus, before dawn, on Friday was greeted with cheers from a crowd of hundreds of Afghans who had gathered, bags packed, to take it.

"I don't know where we are going," said Khalid, a 28-year-old Afghan. "The important thing for me is to have my papers. I have been here in a tent for a month, it's good to leave."

Most of the people in the Stalingrad camp are from war-wracked Afghanistan and Sudan or the repressive African state of Eritrea.

The operation comes after authorities began clearing the "Jungle" camp in Calais on October 24.

The squalid settlement, home to up to 10,000 at its height, had served for years as a jumping-off point for migrants attempting to stow away on trucks and trains bound across the Channel for Britain.

The last shelters and shacks were torn down last week, which coincided with an increase in the numbers of people sleeping rough in the capital.

Paris anger

French authorities deny any link between the destruction of the "Jungle" and the growth in the Stalingrad camp amid growing anger from nearby residents and Paris mayor Hidalgo.

She complained in a letter to Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve of the "dramatic humanitarian and sanitary situation" in the city's northeast.

Also of concern for the government is the need to find enough places in shelters around France for asylum seekers to sleep in.

Plans to disperse the "Jungle" migrants around France in public buildings, many in rural areas, has created unease and resistance from some local mayors.

Many migrants, particularly those bussed to far-flung locations, have simply left and returned to the capital or gone back to the north coast to resume their efforts to slip into Britain, activists say.

Europe has faced its biggest migrant crisis since World War II in the last few years with more than 1.5 million people crossing the Mediterranean since 2014 to escape wars or poverty in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

France has welcomed a fraction of the number of asylum seekers who have headed to its neighbour Germany, which registered 890,000 refugees last year.

France had 73,500 new requests in 2015, up 24 percent, according to interior ministry figures.

Authorities have forecast 100,000 new requests this year.

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