French workers began demolishing the ‘Jungle’ shanty town in Calais on Tuesday, wielding sledgehammers to tear down makeshift dwellings as former residents – migrants seeking entry to Britain – were moved out.
Police equipped with water canon stood guard as hundreds of migrants – some of whom have lived in the scrubland on the northern French coast for months or years – waited for busses to take them for resettlement across France.
“The migrants have known for a long time this was going to happen,” the Calais region’s prefect, Fabienne Buccio, told Reuters after arriving at the camp escorted by between 150 and 200 riot police.
“We are making sure it is done properly. We define an area, and then we go in.”
Groups of young men who have fled war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, kept warm around piles of burning rubbish in the camp, a filthy expanse that has become a symbol of Europe’s failed migration policies.
A large fire blazed at one point, but then appeared to be brought under control, and there was no repeat of the minor skirmishes with security forces seen over the weekend.
Officials said the operation was going peacefully.
For many of the migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other conflict zones, the closure of the Jungle marked the end of a dream to reach Britain, which lies a tantalisingly short sea crossing away.
“We know the Jungle is over,” said Aarash, a 21-year-old Afghan as he made his way to the hangar where immigration officials were processing the migrants.
“We will see if we can get on a bus today, but we want a good city, like one near Paris. If we can’t go there we will come back to the Jungle.”
Social workers and translators sent by the government handed out leaflets around the camp early on Tuesday to convince residents they must prepare to leave the camp. Officials showed some a map of France with a “You Are Here” arrow in English pointing to Calais.
“Overall the migrants have understood that time is up for the Jungle. They’ve been receptive,” said social worker Serge Szarzynski.
Nonetheless, some migrants said that they would resist efforts to resettle them in France.
“France is a good country but just not right for me and my situation. I am going to stay and I will build another jungle!” said a 32-year-old Afghan who gave his name only as Khan.
London and Paris have been at odds over the fate of about 1,300 unaccompanied child migrants living in the Jungle. The French government last week urged Britain to step up its efforts to resettle them.
On Monday, British Interior Minister Amber Rudd said Britain would take in roughly half of the camp’s lone children.
Six months before a presidential election in France, the camp and border controls with Britain are hotly debated campaign issues. Some right-wing opponents of President Francois Hollande want all the migrants sent to Britain.
The far-right National Front party said the current resettlement plan would create mini-Calais camps across France.