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 to be emptied and destroyed.
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“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?”
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.
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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 two regions of a country they don’t know as their intended destination, were just learning the details Sunday.
“The objective has been reached. We have more than 7,000 places. We have a place for everyone,” Calais’ Social Cohesion Director Serge Szarzynski said Sunday. 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 Shinnari, a 26-year old Iraqi who has applied for asylum in France. Shinnari said camp residents who want to end up in the United Kingdom are more worried than those who hope to remain in France.
Calais lies 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 migrants and refugees bound for relocation centers in France to seek asylum in the country.
“Yes, we will live starting tomorrow something exceptional,” Fabienne Buccio, the highest state official in the Pas-de-Calais region, said. The camp that 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.