CALAIS, France (AFP) - French police on Wednesday expelled around 550 people from makeshift camps in the northern port of Calais after a scabies outbreak, drawing criticism from rights groups over the treatment of migrants hoping to reach Britain.
Local officials said some 200 policemen had been deployed to evict the occupants from the camps which were then bulldozed.
Confusion was widespread, notably at one of the largest camps housing some 400 people - mainly Syrian and Afghan exiles - as the migrants have nowhere else to go.
"The people are on edge and are looking for the place where they will feel the safest," Cecile Bossy, from the France-based Doctors of the World NGO, told AFP at the scene.
The authorities said the expulsion was aimed at stopping an outbreak of scabies in the camps, which had no running water or sanitation.
The people in the camps lived in makeshift shelters and tents constructed essentially with bits of wood and plastic sheeting.
Some of the migrants put up improvised barricades with rubbish skips but the operation passed off without any violence.
One Afghan cried out in broken English: "Where is human rights? No human rights. We risked our lives and got here. No disease, we want to live here with humanity." Denis Robin, the prefect of the Pas-de-Calais region, defended the sweep.
"It's a public health issue. All the studies indicated that there was a scabies epidemic. These camps are very big and they are located right in the heart of Calais," he said.
Mr Robin also said the camps had grown to the point that they posed a security threat for local residents.
Mr Bossy said the evacuation was conducted in a manner that was "anything but professional." The migrants were asked to board buses and were taken to meet French immigration officials to examine their individual cases, after having taken showers and undergone treatment for scabies, a contagious skin infection.
Immigration officials issued an appeal to local residents to take in the migrants on a temporary basis until alternative arrangements could be made, but rights activists said this was not enough.
"What will these people do now? Live on the streets, roam around," said Vincent Deconinck from the Secours Catholique charity.
"The situation has been like this for 10 years now and it's not by making their lives worse that one will make them disappear," he said.
Illegal camps of migrants seeking to cross the Channel have sprung up in the Calais area since the French authorities closed down the infamous Sangatte immigrant detention centre in 2002.
Between 40 and 50 people are caught every night trying to cross the Channel illegally, according to Calais authorities.
Many of the migrants living in Calais and trying to enter Britain illegally think they will have a better future there than in France and take huge risks to get there.
Asif Hussainkhil, a 23-year-old Afghan, was rescued earlier this month by the French coastguard while trying to cross the Channel on a raft fashioned with wooden planks and tarpaulin. He has said he will not stop in his attempts until he reaches Britain.