French authorities are moving thousands of migrants and refugees out of the notorious “Jungle" camp in Calais. They say it’s for humanitarian reasons but the fate of the men, women and some 1,300 children remains unclear. (James McAuley, Jason Aldag / The Washington Post)

More than 1,600 migrants were bused to new shelters across France on Monday as authorities prepared to dismantle the notorious “Jungle” camp in Calais, a last stop for those desperate to cross the English Channel and enter Britain.

France maintains that it is closing the camp for humanitarian reasons and to end the stateless limbo for thousands of migrants, many of whom have made unsuccessful attempts to cross the channel. But the camp also has become a glaring symbol of Europe’s struggle to cope with a massive influx of migrants and refugees since last year, many from war-torn places such as Syria and Afghanistan.

There were worries that some migrants in Calais would not leave the camp without a fight. In a demolition attempt earlier this year, police used tear gas on migrants, some of whom threw rocks at police while others stitched their lips shut in protest.

The Interior Ministry has said that France “does not want to use force” but will not hesitate to intervene to quell unrest. On Sunday, French media broadcast images of skirmishes between migrants and police as authorities distributed leaflets about the camp’s closure.

According to the Interior Ministry, 7,500 beds will be made available in temporary asylum centers for evicted Calais migrants.

The camp was eerily quiet on Monday morning. Its once-noisy streets — lined with restaurants, general stores and even libraries — were suddenly transformed into a ghost town. Tents were abandoned, fire pits were cleared out, and trash was littered throughout.

There were no signs of major clashes with police. At least 1,200 officers were on standby. Late Monday, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve praised the “calm and orderly manner” of the operation.

On a misty, cold morning, rows of buses waited to take the migrants to new camps farther inland. As mostly young men nervously clutched suitcases in a line that extended for blocks, few could say where they were headed.

“No one has told me anything. I’m scared,” said 17-year-old Aron Tesfaye from Ethi­o­pia, who has lived in the camp for three months. “I’m afraid of what’s going to happen because I don’t want to stay here in France.”

Like many of the migrants here, Tesfaye’s dream is to go to Britain. He said he has tried almost daily to jump onto the trucks making their way through the tunnel to Britain, just 20 miles across the English Channel to the northwest.

The migrants in Calais, mostly from Afghanistan and Sudan, believe there are more job opportunities in Britain than in France. Many speak some English — as opposed to French — and think they will fare better across the channel. Many also say they have family or friends in Britain.

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For some Afghan migrants, the recent attacks in France by Islamic State-affiliated militants suggest that the country is under siege by the same forces that have targeted their homeland.

Wahid Sahil, 20, a refugee from Kabul who arrived in the Jungle on foot eight months ago, said his father was killed in a July bombing linked to the Islamic State in the Afghan capital. Like Tesfaye, he is determined to get out of France.

“For refugees, it’s way better,” he said, referring to Britain. “You can go to school, work. Everything’s better.”

Frank Esnée, 48, the head of the Calais mission of Doctors Without Borders, a French humanitarian organization, said that seeking asylum in France would probably be a faster option for many migrants than continuing their bids to reach Britain.

Besides, Esnée added, the French government’s network of reception centers will provide immediate medical support, legal advice and even job assistance.

“But what’s important is that we don’t make the choice for them,” he said. “If they want to go [to Britain], we just tell them the options. It’s difficult to tell someone to abandon their whole plan.”

Lucie Carpentier, a lawyer working in the camp to help minors process asylum applications, said there has been little clarity about where the migrants will go.

“We’ve been asking authorities for weeks and weeks and weeks for information, and we only started getting it a few days ago,” she said at the now-abandoned youth center in the camp. “What we have is hardly specific enough — we don’t know what the process is or where they will end up.”

The migrants were registered and then put on buses to “welcome centers,” where, in theory, they can apply for asylum in France. Most of these centers are far from the coast and the ports leading to Britain.

The Calais camp — which had as many as 9,000 people at its height — has long sparked outrage in both France, still reeling from the recent attacks, and post-Brexit Britain, where anti-immigrant sentiment has soared in the wake of the country’s June referendum to exit the European Union.

In France, it has become a major campaign issue before next year’s presidential election.

Seeking a second term, President François Hollande ordered the demolition of the camp with hopes of projecting an image of strength despite immense unpopularity at home. Challenger Alain Juppé, the conservative front-
runner, said last week that the Franco-British border should be moved back to southern England, ending a 2003 agreement that has trapped migrants who wish to enter Britain on the shores of northern France.

“We can’t tolerate what is going on in Calais,” Juppé told reporters. “The image is disastrous for our country, and there are also extremely serious economic and security consequences for the people of Calais.”

After a long campaign led by humanitarian organizations, the British government began accepting child refugees from Calais last week. Most arrived in south London to be reunited with family members already in Britain. On Saturday, the first group of unaccompanied children without family in Britain crossed the channel.

Remaining unaccompanied minors will be temporarily housed in shipping containers on the outskirts of the Jungle until their claims are processed.

Well into Monday evening, migrant men poured out of the Calais camp’s main entrance, dragging suitcases down rocky and muddy pathways to the registration center. Few seemed to harbor any sentimental feelings about a place that had claimed months of their lives.

“I’m glad they’re closing the camp,” said Sahil, the Afghan migrant, gesturing at the Jungle behind him. “It’s animals in there. People don’t live like humans.”