French police razed a squalid camp used by illegal immigrants in scrubland near the English Channel port of Calais on Tuesday, using backhoes and buzz saws to clear away the precarious dwellings, populated mostly by Afghan minors, who were led away stunned and sometimes sobbing.
The destruction of the site — known as "the Jungle" — ends the migrants' dreams of a new life across the Channel in Britain but signifies what France hopes will be a new era in European immigration control. People who lived there tried night after night to sneak across the Channel.
"The law of the jungle cannot last eternally," said Immigration Minister Eric Besson, who ordered the destruction of what he called "a lawless zone where smugglers reign."
He blamed a lack of coordination among European nations' immigration laws for the problem and said he looks forward to tougher border controls "ideally" by the end of the year.
Police scuffled with humanitarian volunteers who have long helped the immigrants, but no injuries were reported.
Up to 800 illegal immigrants camped near the port and in smaller "jungles" around Calais until months ago. However, hundreds began leaving as the expected date to raze the encampment approached. Officials said 278 people — mainly from Afghanistan and nearly half of them under 18 — were led out of the encampment of homemade tents and strewn with garbage piles and infested with maladies like scabies.
Most nights, the illegal immigrants tried to dodge elaborate security — including heat sensors, infrared cameras, dogs and border police patrols — to hop onto or under trucks crossing the Channel to Britain via ferries or the Eurotunnel, which takes freight and passenger traffic between France and Britain.
British Home Secretary Alan Johnson said Tuesday that authorities had halted 28,000 attempts to cross the English Channel illegally in the last year alone. He said he welcomed the "swift and decisive" move by France to close the camp.
Each immigrant is to be offered a voluntary return, with a stipend, to his country or the possibility of applying for asylum, if candidates meet the profile. Those who reject both offers are to be expelled from France. Because of the war in Afghanistan, the receiving country would in some cases be Greece — a main point of entry to Europe. Greece would then be responsible for fielding asylum requests.
Scores of police sealed camp exits about 7:30 a.m. Tuesday and, amid angry denunciations from humanitarian groups present, extracted the immigrants from the crowd one by one, lined them up and led them to buses. Numerous immigrants were seen sobbing or quietly shedding tears. They were later taken away to special centers for processing.
Teams with bulldozers, backhoes and chain saws then moved in, pulling down the tents, made from sticks, logs and plastic, sawing through the logs and bulldozing the debris.
"This operation adds nothing and resolves nothing," said Vincent Lenoir of the Salam association, which has regularly distributed meals to the immigrants.
The network of associations that for years have helped feed and clothe the "jungle" population contend that the encampment's destruction will only displace the problem, not resolve it.
For the hundreds who have already left, "they will come back bit by bit in the coming days and weeks," predicted Marcel Copyans, another volunteer.
Liquidation of 'the jungle'
In 2002, a Red Cross-run shelter was closed in nearby Sangatte. It housed more than 1,000 people who used the temporary home as a springboard for their bids to reach Britain. Sangatte, ordered closed by Nicolas Sarkozy — then interior minister, now France's president — was replaced by the "jungle."
Britain is seen by many illegal immigrants as Europe's El Dorado, a view fed by human traffickers and families who sometimes send their young to the West after paying out huge sums. In addition, many Afghans here speak at least some English and have relatives or know someone in Britain.
Even Keith Best, the head of Britain's Immigration Advisory Service, was doubtful about the long-term effects of clearing out the Calais encampment.
"The liquidation of the 'jungle' will not solve the problem," said Best. The problem is "a failure of the French to be able to admit people into their asylum process" and an uneven burden of asylum requests among European countries, he said.
Besson said he wants both a coherent EU asylum policy and reinforced border controls among countries in the so-called Schengen system of open borders. Currently, detained immigrants must demand asylum in the country by which they entered Europe if they began the application process. Because Britain is not a signatory, it has no such obligations.
"We have put in place a common border without putting in place sufficient means to control this border," Besson said in Calais.
On Monday in Brussels, he proposed that Europe create a border police with reinforced powers, saying he hopes the idea will be adopted at the Oct. 29-30 EU summit.
Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain have repeatedly called for more help from the EU in tackling the problem.
The U.N. refugee agency said Greece has been making it harder recently for asylum seekers to gain refugee status. The UNHCR said Greece granted only 379 people refugee status in 2008 out of 20,000 asylum applications. Greece says it detained more than 146,000 illegal immigrants in 2008, a 30 percent increase from the previous year.
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