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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

France moves to dismantle notorious ‘Jungle’ refugee camp

Migrants line up to register at a processing center Monday in “the jungle” camp near Calais. (Emilio Morenatti / Associated Press)
By James Mcauley Washington Post

CALAIS, France – More than 1,600 migrants were bused to new shelters across France on Monday as authorities prepared to dismantle the notorious “jungle” camp in Calais, a last stop for those desperate to cross the English Channel and enter Britain.

France maintains it is closing the camp for humanitarian reasons and to end the stateless limbo for thousands of migrants, many of whom have made unsuccessful attempts to cross the channel. But the camp also has become a glaring symbol of Europe’s struggle to cope with a massive influx of migrants and refugees since last year, many from war-torn places such as Syria and Afghanistan.

There were worries that some migrants in Calais would not leave the camp without a fight.

The Interior Ministry has said that France “does not want to use force” but will not hesitate to intervene to quell unrest. On Sunday, French media broadcast images of skirmishes between migrants and police as authorities distributed leaflets about the camp’s closure.

According to the Interior Ministry, 7,500 beds will be made available in temporary asylum centers for evicted Calais migrants.

The camp was eerily quiet on Monday morning. Its once-noisy streets – lined with restaurants, general stores and even libraries – were suddenly transformed into a ghost town. Tents were abandoned, fire pits were cleared out, and trash was littered throughout.

There were no signs of major clashes with police. At least 1,200 officers were on standby. Late Monday, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve praised the “calm and orderly manner” of the operation.

On a misty, cold morning, rows of buses waited to take the migrants to new camps farther inland. As mostly young men nervously clutched suitcases in a line that extended for blocks, few could say where they were headed.

“No one has told me anything. I’m scared,” said 17-year-old Aron Tesfaye from Ethiopia, who has lived in the camp for three months. “I’m afraid of what’s going to happen because I don’t want to stay here in France.”

Like many of the migrants here, Tesfaye’s dream is to go to Britain. He said he has tried almost daily to jump onto the trucks making their way through the tunnel to Britain, just 20 miles across the English Channel to the north.

The migrants in Calais, mostly from Afghanistan and Sudan, believe there are more job opportunities in Britain than in France. Many speak some English – as opposed to French – and think they will fare better across the channel. Many also say they have family or friends in Britain already.

Frank Esnie, 48, the head of the Calais mission of Doctors Without Borders, a French humanitarian organization, said seeking asylum in France would probably be a faster option for many migrants than continuing their bids to reach Britain.

Besides, Esnie added, the French government’s network of reception centers will provide immediate medical support, legal advice and even job assistance.

“But what’s important is that we don’t make the choice for them,” he said. “If they want to go (to Britain), we just tell them the options. It’s difficult to tell someone to abandon their whole plan.”

The migrants were registered and then put on buses to “welcome centers,” where they can apply for asylum in France. Most of these centers are far from the coast and the ports leading to Britain.