Full of filth and hope, Calais migrant camp is no more

CALAIS, France (AP) " A slum camp built by migrants on France's northern shore, harboring unfathomable hope and humanity mixed with filth and fear, is now a puddled moonscape of dirt and sand dunes.

Bulldozers and cleaning crews erased the final traces of the vast makeshift camp in Calais, known to all as "the jungle." As an autumn wind blew in from the English Channel, the last of its homemade shelters disappeared Monday night, the end of a weeklong, programmed mass evacuation that spiraled toward a chaotic end as departing migrants set fires to swaths of the site.

"It has been evacuated. It will be secured. No one will be able to go there again," President Francois Hollande said in an interview published Tuesday in La Voix du Nord newspaper, determined to ensure the definitive demise of a camp that mushroomed into a symbol of Europe's migrant crisis after the first arrivals staked out plots in the sandy earth 18 months ago.

The complex exit operation included the transfer of thousands of migrants to reception centers scattered around France " abandoned holiday resorts, unused municipal buildings and other sites in towns and villages with mixed feelings about taking in homeless foreigners. There, people will have a chance to apply for asylum, and also face the risk of getting deported.

But the end of "the jungle" " which aid groups said held more than 10,000 inhabitants two months ago " leaves unfinished business, such as the uncertain fate of more than 1,500 minors who came to France alone. The camp's closure also upended dreams of the majority of migrants who came to Calais for what they hoped would be a brief stop on the way to Britain.

The unofficial camp took in " no questions asked " people fleeing wars, dictatorships or grinding poverty. Among its residents: Pepsi, a transgender Filipino who had worked in Libya; a deaf Sudanese who cannot speak but expressed himself by decorating his house with whirly-gigs, flags and ornamental Christmas trees; an Afghan diagnosed with PTSD.

"I don't want to be nostalgic, as this was not a place to live," Francois Guennoc, vice president of aid group Auberge des Migrants, said. Yet "amazing things happened in this slum," Guennoc added, noting how migrants built restaurants, shops, schools, mosques and a church while demonstrating the capacity communities of different origins have to live together.

"There were stories of friendship, even love," amid fierce fights, he said. "Life was intense."

The intense life and quick death of the jungle camp left some migrants relieved to find an alternative, others deeply upset.

Mahmet Khan, an 18-year-old Afghan, was left panicking as the deadline to evacuate neared last week. He said he had spent 14 months in the camp, arriving as a minor who could not be expelled from France and getting evicted as an adult whose weeks in the country may be numbered.

"We paid 8,000 euros for me to come to Europe," Khan, a slight boy-man, moaned. "My mother sell her house. Mother says, 'You go, save your life in UK.'"

Speaking amid the rubble of the improvised restaurant where minors found meals and companionship, Khan felt lost as he watched the buses pulling out. He worked seven months as a volunteer cook at the Kids Restaurant after futilely trying to jump onto trucks that could carry him across the Channel.

"Look at my face. Shit!" he said, visibly anguished. "I so tired ... I so upset, confused. No family, no friends. No life ... All is crazy."

The shanty town settlement was emblematic of France's early failure to address the surge of desperate people making their way to the country in what has become an ongoing exodus from Africa and the Middle East, a microcosm of challenges playing out elsewhere in Europe as humanitarian impulses go toe-to-toe with fear, tension and hate.

Anti-migrant sentiment emerged around Calais as merchants and some citizens complained the camp had blackened the image of their city, where barbed-wire fences were erected to prevent migrants from accessing roads to the port and the Eurotunnel. Some died on the roadways, mainly in hit-and-run accidents in their dangerous gamble to sneak into moving trucks.

Riot police were an ever-present nightmare for migrants. More than 2,000 were brought into Calais, posted at the camp entrance, occasionally patrolling inside and nightly spraying those on the roadway leading to the port with tear gas.

The alleys of the jungle could be mean. Thefts, fights and fires were not uncommon. Disputes among communities occasionally ended with shelters set ablaze. One Afghan migrant lifted his shirt to show scars from wounds stitched up after a knife attack, and produced medical records.

Starting in the 1990s " long before Europe's current migrant crisis " refugees from the war in Kosovo, the killing fields of Afghanistan and Sudan or closed-off countries like Eritrea were massing in Calais, dreaming of Britain. Syrians followed.

A 2003 deal cut by Paris and London, which followed the closing of a huge Red Cross camp in nearby Sangatte, effectively puts the British border in Calais " and the onus on France to keep migrants from entering Britain. The British government in turn has pumped millions into security structures in Calais.

But migrants stuck to their dreams, living first in "mini-jungles" within groves of trees, behind a grocery store or in the shadow of the Tioxide chemical plant.

They had made perilous journeys before reaching Calais, overland through Europe or across the Mediterranean from Libya. In many cases, they witnessed the deaths of fellow travelers on the way. The city repeatedly bulldozed groupings of shelters that sprouted up.

Then an official center opened on the edge of town for 400 women and children in April 2015, with showers and cellphone chargers that drew in other migrants, too. Word got out, and migrants began sinking roots around the unstable sand dunes. Officials closed their eyes to the new "jungle" in the making, and it grew, and grew.

Authorities razed the southern half of the camp in March, pushing 1,000 migrants out. The displaced squeezed into the northern half, and migrants kept coming.

And now the northern half is empty, too. The migrants are gone, along with the businesses that helped them survive.

Tasty Land, White Mountain and the Kids Restaurant were reduced to charred rubble in blazes last week and swept into dump trucks. The cleanup took away thousands of tents and huts that blanketed the sand, along with slightly more substantial plywood dwellings decorated with tiger pictures or hand-painted flowers.

Its several schools were mowed down. The Ethiopian-built Orthodox church, adorned with Madonnas and angels, its two crosses soaring above the camp, remains standing for now, along with other places of worship. They, too, are destined to go.

"We lived in the jungle like a family. We knew each other, we helped each other and suddenly everyone needs to go," said Jamal Ismail, a British-Malaysian who ran the Kitchen in Calais, a volunteer service that provided 1,500 meals a day.

The kitchen, built of plywood, survived the fires, but not the bulldozer. Ismail didn't grieve.

"There is no foundation on sand ... It would not last 100 years," he said. "And people needed to move on. There is no future in the jungle."

Authorities vow to ensure the camp does not rise up again. Police are systematically checking potential squatting sites around town. Mayors in neighboring towns are doing the same.

Guennoc, of the Auberge des Migrants aid group, criticized the exit plan for failing to take into account migrants who don't qualify for asylum but can offer Europe their remarkable energy and ingenuity.

The slum camp "could have become a city. Only a police headquarters and a mayor's office were missing," he mused.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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