France: authorities declare 'Jungle' migrant camp empty

The evacuation was accelerated because some of the frustrated, departing migrants set fire to parts of the burgeoning slum.

AP Photo/Matt Dunham
A fire burns in the makeshift migrant camp known as "the jungle" near Calais, northern France, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. France began the mass evacuation Monday of "the jungle," a mammoth project to erase the humanitarian blight on its northern border, where thousands fleeing war or poverty have lived in squalor, most hoping to sneak into Britain.

The grim camp known as "the jungle," a symbol of Europe's failure to come to grips with its crisis over asylum seekers, is no more.

French authorities declared Wednesday they had cleared out the camp after most of its thousands of residents were driven away on buses — an evacuation accelerated because some of the frustrated, departing migrants set fire to parts of the burgeoning slum.

Smoke hung in the air as dusk fell, its stench a reminder of how one of the world's wealthiest nations was unable to create order at the camp, where those fleeing war and poverty have lived in squalor for months or longer.

Most of the camp's former residents, foiled in their bid to enter Britain despite reaching the port city of Calais on the edge of the English Channel, are being relocated to communities throughout France, where authorities have pledged to give them decent shelter and advice about how to seek asylum so they can stay in Europe rather than return to trouble spots in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Some refused the offer, however, preferring to take their chances trying to hop trucks heading to ferries crossing the English channel or on the speeding Eurostar trains that connect France to Britain via the nearby Eurotunnel.

"This jungle is no good. We go to new jungle," said a 20-year-old Pakistani, Muhammad Afridi.

He said he was joining 30 friends in a place he refused to identify that could be used as a jumping off point for clandestine, and risky, passage to England.

Siddiq, a 17-year-old Afghan who spent 11 months in the camp, said the fires terrified him overnight, especially when gas tanks ignited. The Associated Press is not using the last names of teenage migrants because of their vulnerable situation.

He said he left and slept under a nearby bridge despite the freezing temperatures. He has been trying without success to get to Britain by truck.

"My heart, it is broken," he said. "I can't do anything, even eat."

Crews were moving in Wednesday night with heavy equipment to clear the charred ruins and remove any tents and shelters that remained standing. Authorities said earlier that four Afghans were detained on suspicion of torching parts of the camp. The blazes slightly injured one person who was taken to a hospital.

"The camp is completely empty. There are no more migrants in the camp," said Prefect Fabienne Buccio, the state's highest authority in the region. "Our mission has been fulfilled."

Despite the pronouncement, migrants were seen milling around the edges of the camp, although officials said they would stop processing people by Wednesday evening.

Authorities said 5,596 people were evacuated in the complex operation that began Monday, including hundreds of unaccompanied minors being housed in heated containers at the camp. Britain took in 234 migrants with family ties in the UK.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said 450 reception centers were set up across the country to help people apply for asylum. Those not rejected outright will go into centers or apartments for asylum seekers so that their applications can be examined the regular way. He has said most should qualify, but those who don't will be expelled.

Flames enveloped the main alley through the camp overnight, reducing shelters to skeleton-like hulks on either side of the road. Gas canisters popped as they exploded in the heat. One aid group's truck burst into flames.

Migrants stood and watched. Some laughed; others seemed dismayed. As the reality of the mass evacuation took hold, fearful asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and Pakistan braced for a new reality. Some pledged to just keep moving.

One Ethiopian, who gave only his first name, Binal, because he feared for his precarious situation, was among numerous migrants who refused to board buses on Wednesday, saying he wanted to try to get to England.

He said he was hopeful the government there would give him a house, although he and other migrants spoke poor English and didn't appear to understand the process of applying for asylum.

A teenage boy named Zia seemed confused — and lost.

"I want to go to the UK," he said. "Not staying here, the jungle finished. But I not understand where I go."

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