French police swept in early Tuesday to begin clearing out a notorious squatters' community dubbed the "Calais Jungle," amid criticism from immigrants' rights groups.
Hundreds of officers took part in the morning raid, which was signaled far enough in advance that many migrants had already moved out themselves.
France's Le Monde newspaper reported that the operation began around 7:30 a.m., with police officers using microphones to warn migrants to leave. Migrants had posted signs saying, "We need shelter and protection. We seek asylum and peace. The 'jungle' is our home."
They waited for the police operation in silence, in the presence of a swarm of journalists and activists. The migrants had lit a fire of pallets throughout the night, sharing tea and cigarettes with journalists. Some were sleeping around the fire, some in their huts.
The New York Times reported that the community had posed a problem for the French government since late 2002, when a Red Cross center closed down, forcing migrants to camp around the Calais port. The paper reported that at its peak last month the camp was home to some 1,400 migrants, but that only some 300 remained by Tuesday morning.
Pierre Bousquet, the prefect of the Pas de Calais region, told reporters that the operation had gone well. “We arrested 146 adults and 142 minors,” he said, adding that the adults were being interviewed by police.
The move to eliminate the tents and ramshackle housing around the port is designed to halt migrants without papers from getting into Britain, and to crack down on the smuggling networks that assist them.
Some activists slammed the French government for allowing the immigrants to remain so long in ramshackle dwellings and legal limbo, the Independent reported.
Refugee Action said the camp, which became home to hundreds of mainly Afghan asylum seekers, had allowed "false expectation" to be built up.
Sandy Buchan, chief executive of the London-based group, said: "The French government should have taken responsibility. When people turn up as individuals, they should be admitted to the asylum stream. If there are applicants with strong links to Britain or various other countries, they should be admitted to the asylum system there.
"This should never be allowed to happen again. They should never have been allowed to rot there like this. It's appalling neglect and has allowed false expectation to be built up."
"It's the base camp of the traffickers, with people who are exploited, victims of violence, there are bosses and deputies, it's the law of the jungle that rules and on French territory the law of the jungle cannot continue to rule," he said.