French authorities declared the Calais camp known as “The Jungle” empty on Wednesday, after fires in the area accelerated plans to evacuate refugees.
Local officials announced the destruction of the camp, where thousands fleeing war and poverty have lived in squalor waiting for a chance to journey across the English Channel into Britain. The camp’s residents are being moved to 450 reception centres around France where they can attempt to seek asylum.
“There are no more migrants in the camp,” said Fabienne Buccio, a local official in the camp. “Our mission has been fulfilled.”
Refugees were seen milling around afterwards despite the announcement, but authorities said they would stop processing people by Wednesday evening.
Many have flocked to the Calais region for decades, but the camp has grown as the refugee crisis expanded.
As it evolved into a massive sprawl supported by aid groups, France finally decided to shut it down.
As the reality of the mass evacuation took hold, fearful refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and Pakistan braced for a new reality. Some pledged to just keep moving.
“This jungle is no good,” said Muhammad Afridi, 20, from Pakistan. “We go to a new jungle.”
The main alley through the camp near the city of Calais burned overnight, leaving skeleton-like hulks on either side of the road.
Firefighters delved into the camp’s deepest recesses, trying to prevent a massive conflagration.
Gas canisters popped as they exploded in the heat. One aid group’s truck burst into flames.
“The police have pushed all the press and all the refugees out of the area. The flames and the smoke that we have seen over the last few hours have essentially done the police work for them. They have driven out the refugees,” said Al Jazeera’s David Chater, reporting from Calais.
“Virtually, the camp has now been cleared … There were extraordinary scenes over the course of last night and today.”
At least four Afghans carrying petrol bombs were arrested, police told Al Jazeera.
Steve Barbet, a spokesman for the regional authorities, said one migrant was hospitalised. About 100 migrants were evacuated.
The camp once housed 6,300 migrants, according to authorities, but aid groups said the number was much higher.
“There was a desperate rush by the refugees to try and rescue their asylum and immigration papers as the fires burned,” said our correspondent. “Most of them did tell me their hopes of reaching the UK have not been abandoned, just postponed.”
Dorothy Sang, Save the Children spokeswoman, said there were concerns over the fate of minors.
“Children need to be registered before they can go into safe accommodation,” she told Al Jazeera. “Last night we couldn’t get everyone registered. Hundreds of children spent another night alone in ‘the jungle’ with it burning down around them .. children have nowhere to go right now.”
More than 500 children live in and around the Calais camp area.
“I can’t stress enough how frightened children are,” said Sang. “I was with a 15-year-old boy here yesterday who wasn’t able to be registered. He had been held at knife point and all of his belongings had been taken from him and he had nowhere to sleep last night. There are more stories like this of children being separated by those who were looking after them.”