Fear and questions hang over doomed French migrant camp

Demonstrators throw back tear gas canisters to French riot police officers during clashes in a makeshift migrant camp known as "the jungle" near Calais, northern France, on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016. French authorities say the closure of the slum-like camp in Calais will start on Monday and will last approximatively a week in what they describe as a "humanitarian" operation. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press
Demonstrators threw back tear gas canisters at French riot police officers during clashes in a makeshift migrant camp known as "the jungle" near Calais on Saturday.

CALAIS, France — Migrants prayed, plotted, and played soccer together Sunday, a day before France starts clearing them by the thousands from a makeshift refugee camp that is doomed for destruction.

But the scene that would pass for normal on another day at the slum-like camp in the northern port town of Calais nicknamed the ‘‘jungle’’ was anything but routine.

On Monday, 60 buses are set to transport 3,000 migrants to reception centers scattered around France. By week’s end, the camp is set to be destroyed.


‘‘Tomorrow the jungle is finished. You know it, right?’’ Enrika Kareivaite, a volunteer with aid group Care4Calais, told a group of migrants. Police and volunteers will be on hand, she said, ‘‘and we will ask you to leave with us together, OK?’’

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

After nightfall, groups of migrants used portable toilets to set huge bonfires on a sandy no-man’s land on the camp’s edge that authorities carved out earlier this year to push camp inhabitants away from a road leading to port and ferries to England.

Scores of riot police were keeping watch, and some occasionally charged the groups igniting the flames.

The evacuation of at least 6,486 migrants — aid groups have estimated 8,300 — has been in the works for two months and is expected to take a week. It is unfolding as a complex ballet of lines, interviews, and bus rides to the unknown.

The people at the camp, who will be allowed to pick as their intended destination two regions of a country they don’t know, were just learning the details Sunday.


‘‘The objective has been reached. We have more than 7,000 places. We have a place for everyone,’’ said Serge Szarzynski, a social service official in Calais.

But most migrants encountered were unaware of how the operation was to proceed and unsure where their next landing place would be. Aid groups and official organizations still were putting out word that the camp’s days were numbered.

Some people staying at the camp said they fear ending up in unwelcoming villages with few economic opportunities instead of cities, a real possibility.

‘‘And there are rumors here that they are taking them to warehouses,’’ said Tariq Shinwari, a 26-year old Afghan who has applied for asylum in France.

Shinwari said camp residents who want to end up in the United Kingdom are more worried than those who hope to remain in France.


Calais is on the French side of the English Channel, and migrants who have tried to board ferries and trucks making the crossing have repeatedly been turned back. French authorities expect any refugees — those who are fleeing wars or persecution and cannot be legally returned to their countries — to seek asylum in the country.

The camp, which sprang up 18 months ago in the sand dunes near the Calais port, is home to a population that fled wars and other crises, from Syria and Afghanistan to Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The heart of the chaotic camp has been a church built by Ethiopians. With two crosses that dominate the landscape and a carefully decorated interior, it offered a wellspring of hope for the faithful, including those who attended a special 4-hour service on Sunday.

‘‘This is a special service. The people are really fearing,’’ Salamin, a man who acts as church keeper and activity planner, said. Like many others on the cusp of the unknown, he gave only a single name.

In Italy on Sunday, officials said 14 bodies were recovered in a two-day period on smugglers’ boats packed with migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

The Italian coast guard said the dead included a 25-year-old pregnant woman. In all 5,700 migrants were rescued from dozens of small boats and rubber dinghies between Friday and Saturday.