A French court gave the state the green light to raze tents and lean-tos sheltering hundreds of refugees in a sprawling slum camp in Calais, where thousands dream of getting to Britain.
The camp in the northern port city — known as the “jungle” — has been an embarrassing and often shocking chapter in Europe’s refugee crisis, and the state announced this month that the densely populated southern half would be razed.
Associations protesting the move took the issue to court seeking a postponement of a deadline reached last Tuesday for refugees to move out.
The court in Lille ruled that the makeshift shelters used by the refugees can be destroyed — but that common spaces like places of worship, schools, and a library must stand.
Demolition crews have been poised to start what officials say will be a better solution for refugees trapped in Calais with borders all but sealed by increasing security.
Officials estimate the number of refugees who will be affected at around 800 to 1,000. Humanitarian organisations say more than 3,000 migrants live there.
Moving the refugees out of the mini-slum will be the most dramatic step by the French state to end Calais’ years-long refugee problem, which has transformed the northern city into a high-security tension point, fuelled far-right sentiment, and defied British and French government efforts to make it go away. Critics contend that closing the camp may not solve the problem.
The same court in Lille ordered the state in November to clean up the camp by adding running water, toilets, and rubbish bins, and counting the number of minors without families — now 326 — and help those in distress.
Saving the refugees’ temporary homes from bulldozers became a mass effort by volunteers, humanitarian groups, and a dose of star power.
British actor Jude Law paid a visit last weekend and 260 French figures signed a petition against destroying the camp.
In announcing plans to close the camp, authorities cited security and sanitation concerns and the increasingly tarnished image of Calais, a city of nearly 80,000 that takes pride in drawing tourists to its Opal Coast.
Its prime location — with a major ferry port, Eurotunnel rail system, and truck traffic crossing the English Channel — has put it in the crosshairs of the refugee crisis.
Residents have mostly learned to live with refugees in their midst. But tensions rose when the camp’s population spiked to 6,000 last autumn before dropping to 4,000 more recently.
An increasingly vocal backlash is punctuated by militia-style violence. Truckers have grown exasperated or fearful of increasingly bold tactics by refugees trying to sneak rides across the English Channel.
The area targeted for destruction is dotted with rickety shops, cafes, places of worship and schools, built by aid groups and the refugees, most of whom travelled from conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, or came to escape human rights abuses or poverty in African nations.
A sense of anxiety mounted in the camp ahead of the court ruling.
“Obviously, they are scared and concerned about what is going to happen,” said Ed Sexton, of Help Refugees, one of numerous British associations working in the camp.
“The people have been here months, living in terrible conditions, but they don’t want their shelters destroyed.”
Lacking papers, refugees in Calais have to sneak across the Channel in a bid to enter Britain, and at least 20 refugees have died trying since late June, according to authorities.