France starts clearing 'jungle' refugee camp

They began lining up outside the bunkers earmarked for registration in the dark hours before dawn.

Hundreds of young men from Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia shivering in the cold, bundled up against it; they dragged big-checkered plastic bags behind them. The luckier ones had wheelie bags; their entire lives carried on their backs or dragged behind them.

This was the start of the French operation to dismantle the so-called “jungle,” the sprawling shantytown that has grown up on the edge of Calais to become temporary home to an estimated 9,000 refugees and economic migrants.

Women, families and unaccompanied minors are being “processed” at separate venues, meaning officials are registering them to be taken to one of the various migrant centres around France. Few of the young men standing in the queue knew what they were lining up for or where they were going — they only knew that they’d been ordered to leave or face the consequences.

“They told us to leave this morning otherwise it can be dangerous and serious for us,” said Moussa, a 24-year-old from Sudan who didn’t want to show his face to the camera for fear, he said, of government reprisals.

“I came from Sudan to Libya and from Libya to Italy and by Italy to France,” he said.

When I asked him how he was feeling, he said “stressful.”

The French government calls the demolition an “indispensable humanitarian” operation.

But for thousands of its residents, France’s decision to raze the camp signals potential defeat after months, if not years, of sacrifice and strife.

The sense of despair running through the long lineup to register and get on a bus is tangible. But so is the fatigue. Many in line say they’re exhausted by life in the jungle.

“Cold. Some people aggressive. Some people criminal,” said Mohammed, a 25-year-old from Darfur, Sudan.

“Police aggressive,” he added. 

Daigle calais camp

A Sudanese migrant who refused to provide his name said he’s been in the camp for five months and is now ready to claim asylum in France. ‘We need humanity,’ he said. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

He hopes wherever he’s headed will be better.

Officials began distributing leaflets over the weekend in nine different languages — from Urdu and Pashto to Oromo and Arabic — outlining a process they hope people will accede to voluntarily. Bulldozers are scheduled to arrive Tuesday to begin the demolition.

There were clashes though over the weekend between some camp dwellers and the French police who used tear gas to dispel the crowds.

Daigle Calais camp

Migrants and refugees lined up before dawn outside the Calais migrant camp to claim asylum in France, as authorities are set to close the tent city. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

French President François Hollande announced the decision to dismantle the camp in September, but it is a massive operation and expected to take at least a week. Some 700 journalists have been accredited to witness the operation.

France has tried and failed to dismantle migrant settlements near Calais in the past. In 2002, a camp administered by the Red Cross in the village of Sangatte near Calais was closed down. It was home to about 2,000 people.

After it was dismantled, refugees and migrants simply moved to other areas nearby, which is what many are expected to do again, moving up or down the coastline.

On a clear day, the white cliffs of Dover, U.K., are clearly visible from Calais. Many people hope to make it all the way to Great Britain because of the language, because of potential support networks and because some believe it’s easier to work illegally. The U.K. doesn’t yet require ID cards, unlike many other European countries.

Businesses and residents in Calais blame the refugees and immigrants for a fall in their fortunes. And truck drivers making the crossing between England and the continent have faced enormous pressure as refugees and migrants have sought to hide on their vehicles.

They’re fined if extra passengers are carried across, and many have also said they’ve been threatened and intimidated by crowds of people trying to jump aboard as they pass near to the port at night.

The French plan involves offering migrants a choice of different locations where they can make a claim for asylum. If they are rejected, or choose not to make a claim, they will be deported.

Evans Calais camp

Moussa, 25, is from Sudan. He says life in the Calais ‘jungle’ has been tough. But he also says that is his choice to live in the camp because he wants to reach the U.K. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

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