More than 2,000 migrants were evacuated Monday from the so-called Calais “Jungle” on the first day of a massive government operation to dismantle France’s largest shanty town and relocate its inhabitants across the country.
“The Jungle is for animals, it’s not for humans,” Mohammed, a 16-year-old Sudanese refugee at the Jungle camp in Calais, told FRANCE 24 as he watched the queues of fellow migrants waiting patiently on the first day of the camp’s evacuation. The first coachload to leave Calais departed at around 8:45am on Monday with some 50 Sudanese refugees on board, heading to the Burgundy region of east-central France.
The evacuation operation, which the French government took several months to organize, should last for a week, during which migrants will be assigned to one of 280 reception centres across the country, after being separated into different categories – single men, families, vulnerable people and unaccompanied minors.
The sprawling and crowded Jungle, which hosted more than 8,000 people – most of them young men – hoping to cross the channel to the perceived El Dorado of England, is a squalid mess of makeshift huts, caravans and tents.
At the centre of the camp stands a stack of converted shipping containers where the camp’s hundreds of unaccompanied minors will remain while their status is being clarified by authorities.
Many of them, from countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Sudan, hope to to join the 200 youngsters accepted into the UK in recent weeks; some have already been interviewed by British immigration officers in France but so far haven’t received any reply.
“It’s shameful that two of the world’s richest countries [France and the UK] haven’t been able to sort out this mess,” said British volunteer Sally Hunt, part of the Care 4 Calais association, helping to shepherd the mostly baffled refugees through the long queues they were subjected to before departure.
The first day of the evacuation, which went mostly smoothly according to the interior ministry, is an important public relations exercise for the French government, which had to answer repeated calls to solve the chaotic situation at the camp.
Around 2,300 of its baffled residents were processed under the obsessive glare of the world’s media – more than 700 journalists were accredited for the first day of the evacuation – on Monday.
Officials are confident that another 2,000 people will be able to leave on Wednesday before the lion’s share of the camp’s population is evacuated by the end of the week.
The processing hangar
The refugees, in groups of around 50, queued all day for their turn to run the gauntlet of a well-intentioned but coldly-efficient process.
Surrounded by 1,200 riot police stationed around the camp, the migrants were drip-fed into a cold, damp processing hangar.
There, they were shown a map of France, and asked to choose between one of two regions that would be the destination for their bus-load.
They were then tagged with coded bracelets, identity checked by yet more police officers, loaded on to buses (having shown their wrist-bands to supervising officers at every stage of the process) and driven away.
None of the migrants who spoke to FRANCE 24 knew what their final destination would look like or what would await them there.
Many were delighted to be out of the Jungle, away from its smells, danger and uncertainty. But many still harboured the desire to get to England, where their chances of finding work seem better to them, and where many have friends and family.
Few of the refugees speak French, and many have a negative image of a country whose riot police appears tough and uncompromising. Most speak reasonable to excellent English, “learned at home, on the journey and here at the camp”.
But Calais “is finished, there is no chance of making it to England from here”, said Simim, an 18-year-old Afghan from the northern city of Kunduz, who has been in the jungle for more than a year.
An intelligent and articulate young man with a wry sense of humour, he invited FRANCE 24 into his caravan, delivered to the camp by British volunteers, for afternoon tea.
He and his friends, who are all from the same region in Afghanistan but only met after arriving in the Jungle, have tried countless times to make it over to England. All of them are around the same age, most of them disqualified from having the special status of children.
Simim’s friend Ahmad, who has been dreaming of England since he was a small child, said he had run away from the constant conflict in his home country. “When I came to the Jungle, I wasn’t even shaving. Now I am too old to be considered a child.”
Monday, Simim and his friends went out to look at the queues of departing migrants, but decided to spend another night in the camp. Even if the “Jungle is finished”, it is still their home and they are unwilling to leave or to risk their small group being broken up.
Above all, they are desperate for trustworthy information. And despite the efforts of officials handing out leaflets in most of the camp’s languages, they are profoundly distrustful of authorities, and uncertain about what France’s highly publicised destruction of the Jungle camp will mean for their future.
France is making a huge effort to show the world, and particularly the immigrant-wary UK, that it is making an effort to sort out the persistent refugee problem that has become a national embarrassment.
On Monday, British police officers were being given guided tours around the 1.5 square kilometres slum. Police Sergent Casson, from Barnett near London, was being shown around the makeshift huts “so that we can get to know the facts on the ground”.
When he passed Simim, Ahmad and their small group of friends, he asked them: “So, what football team do you support?”
Inevitably, the nervous (but earnest) answers came back – “Manchester United!”, “Liverpool!”, “Chelsea!”
The policeman replied, with a large and friendly dose of ironic British humour: “If you support that lot, then you are certainly not welcome to the UK.”
But these young Afghans have seen a lot, and see straight through this well-intentioned humour.
Their experience at the Jungle camp is nearly at an end, and for now, all they know is a feeling of fear.