The French government has officially begun dismantling the infamous “Jungle” migrant camp in the French city of Calais, which houses roughly 6,000 people and has been a potent symbol of Europe’s refugee crisis.
About 2,000 of the camp’s residents, most of whom are from Africa and Afghanistan, left on buses voluntarily on Monday. Hundreds more have been following them out of the camp on Tuesday, the second full day of the operation.
They are being taken to over 400 “reception centers” — many of which are abandoned barracks, hospitals, and hotels — located throughout France. Once they arrive at their destinations, they will be given the opportunity to file claims for asylum or face deportation.
According to the international aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which conducted a quantitative survey of the camp in the spring of 2016, about one-third of the migrants in the camp are from Sudan, followed by migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Eritrea, and Pakistan.
Syrians and Iraqis are likely to have the best shot at being granted asylum, although that is certainly not guaranteed, while Afghans are likely to be sent home to a worsening war zone.
The refugee crisis has roiled European politics, as heightened fear of terrorism emanating from Middle East conflict zones like Iraq and Syria as well as more persistent concerns about immigration and even just plain old racism and xenophobia have boosted support for right-wing, populist political parties in France, Hungary, Britain, Italy, Finland, and Germany.
These parties — which push nativist, anti-refugee, and anti-immigrant policies — have drawn markedly more support in recent years as millions of desperate people have fled Syria’s brutal civil war and other conflicts around the globe.
Refugees have swamped port cities across Europe, but the Jungle has emerged as a particularly striking illustration of the crisis because of its proximity to both Britain and more populated areas of France.
Crews in hard hats and orange jumpsuits started the demolition of the Jungle on Tuesday, tearing down the camp’s wooden shacks with sledgehammers and using diggers to move away debris.
According to the BBC, “the demolition is expected to be done mostly by hand — and in a low-key manner — as officials believe sending in bulldozers at this point would send the wrong message to migrants they want to convince to get on buses voluntarily.”
Children are the only group allowed to stay in Calais. They will be housed in the camp's converted shipping containers while the rest of the Jungle is dismantled.
The French government claims the decision to dismantle the camp was due to humanitarian concerns, given wretched living conditions there. And indeed, the UN High Commission on Refugees has commended France's decision.
"The Jungle site has been problematic for a number of years, and UNHCR has long recommended its closure,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards said in a statement earlier this month. “Living conditions are appalling, with the most basic shelter, inadequate hygiene facilities, poor security and a lack of basic services."
The Calais police commissioner told the BBC that the camp will be fully cleared by Friday and that only about 200 people are expected to try to stay. Indeed, many residents are eager to leave the camp’s often squalid conditions. “It is a very bad situation here,” Hassan Jibril, a 35-year-old Sudanese man at the camp, told the New York Times. “We are ready to leave.”
But aid workers at the camp are warning that that number of people who plan to try to stay in the camp in defiance of orders to evacuate could be much, much higher — into the thousands.
The MSF survey found that 82 percent of Calais’s refugees are trying to reach Britain. "They do not want to leave," Christian Salome, head of the Migrant Shelter charity, told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper. "They will not abandon their dream of England."
Riot police were deployed to prevent unrest, but so far the operation to dismantle the camp has been largely peaceful. However, that could change when bulldozers begin to roll into the camp later this week.
The refugees from the Jungle may receive a far chillier reception than they expect. Hundreds of people in the small towns and villages where the former residents of the Calais migrant camp are being resettled have taken to the streets to protest their impending arrival.
In the French town of Pierrefeu, Mayor Patrick Martinelli led a procession of several hundred protesters opposed to government plans to house some migrants in the abandoned wing of a psychiatric hospital there. “Even if we can understand the dismantling of Calais … our small towns are not the solution for this dismantling,” the mayor said during the rally. “We are too small to host so many people.”
France’s far-right Front National (FN) party, led by the controversial figure Marine Le Pen, planned to hold their own rallies and called on mayors of the various French towns due to receive migrants to publicly oppose the government’s plans.
Members from the FN, including Le Pen’s niece Marion, also joined a march of about a hundred villagers in the town of Grambois in La Tour-d'Aigues, Southern France, to protest the arrival of migrants. Nearby, some 400 to 500 people gathered in support of the Calais refugees, calling on their neighbors to “open your heart.”