As many as 70 asylum-seekers, most of them Iraqi Kurds and Afghans, were evicted by police from a Catholic church in this northern port today, as France began imposing tough new rules to try to stem the flood of illegal migrants to this corner of the country.
The showdown began Saturday, when the refugees entered the St. Pierre-St. Paul Church , threatened a hunger strike and vowed to kill themselves if police tried to evict them.
Gilles Gaudiche of the Pas-de-Calais regional government told the Associated Press the operation took place "without incident."
Migrants flooding into Calais want to continue their journey across the English Channel to Britain, where refugee and political asylum rules are considered more lenient than in France, and where many of them have family connections. The normal way station en route to Britain is a Red Cross center near here at Sangatte, but on Nov. 5 the French government stopped all new entries to Sangatte, pending its permanent closure in April. Sangatte has about 1,800 residents who will be given a choice of returning home or applying for asylum in France.
Closing Sangatte was a major pledge of France's new center-right government, which took office in May. The refugee center was seen as a magnet for illegal immigrants, who risk their lives trying to get to Britain through the Channel Tunnel, often by sneaking aboard the fast-moving Eurostar train. The British government and officials from Eurostar have also been calling for the camp's closure.
But the refugees keep coming. And without a designated refuge, they now make their home on the sidewalks of Calais.
"We sleep in the streets," said Mohammed, 20, an Iraqi Kurd who arrived here six days ago. "I want to go to Britain, but the way is closed," he said, speaking in the halting English he learned in school. He had a blanket rolled under his right arm, and a hood and a towel wrapped over his head for warmth against the chilly air. In a pocket of his brown leather jacket were a few slices of white bread -- all he has left to eat, he said.
"I need bread. I need water," said Kurshid, 18, another Iraqi Kurd who arrived here after a week-long truck journey through Turkey. He said he dreams of working in a restaurant in Britain, Canada or Australia.
As for France, he echoed the sentiment of many refugees. "It's no good," he said. "They make you wait two, three years, and then refuse you a passport."
Calais residents have complained about their town becoming a magnet for Britain-bound migrants and have long wanted to see Sangatte closed and the refugee problem disappear. Residents of this normally quiet, working-class town reported a surge of violence blamed on refugees.
Local frustration was behind the unexpectedly strong showing here of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of France's presidential election on April 21.
President Jacques Chirac easily beat Le Pen in the final ballot two weeks later. But Chirac said he understood the message of Le Pen's showing and quickly named a new center-right government that made closing Sangatte and cracking down on illegal immigration top priorities.
Nicolas Sarkozy, a longtime Chirac ally who was named interior minister and given expanded powers, made an early trip here and then secured a deal with Britain to close the camp. France promised to do so, while Britain said it would toughen its asylum procedures to try to deter new arrivals.
Many refugees arriving here in the last week were surprised to find Sangatte closed. On Wednesday, some went inside the church for shelter, while others waited outside trying to plot their next course for getting to England. And they seem undeterred by Britain's tougher rules. "My friends are in England. My family is in England," said Mohammed.
The French government, backed by local officials, had offered to relocate the migrants to other parts of France and allow them to apply for asylum.
Jack Lang, a Socialist legislator from the region, called the issue "very complex" and one that should not be treated "as a political question."
"I agree with the decision to close the center," Lang said in an interview. "At the same time, there should be a transition period."
Not everyone else here was taking a tough view of the immigrant influx. Mireille Lecoustre, a mother of five, arrived outside the church Wednesday with a plastic bag filled with bananas and started handing them out to the hungry refugees.
"I have a lot of children, so I'm sad to see young people like this," she said. She called Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin "insensitive to the misery of other people."