French government officials were forced to speed up their evacuation of the Calais refugee camp Wednesday morning as the sprawling migrant camp known as “the Jungle,” in the northern French town of Calais, was engulfed in flames.
Tents and makeshift shelters were set ablaze as hundreds of migrants lined up for processing, destined for reception centres scattered across France where they have been promised the chance to apply for asylum. Riot police spread out around the camp and fire trucks moved in to put out some of the fires, sending towering plumes of smoke into the sky above the so-called jungle which has become known as a symbol for Europe’s growing refugee crisis due to its deplorable conditions.
“And so the jungle burns,” said French photographer Iain Statham, who was photographing the dismantlement, on Twitter.
The camp – which once held between 6,500 and 8,000 refugees – is being dismantled due to local opposition, criticism from France’s right-wing politicians and concerns about the wellbeing of migrants.
The dismantling of the camp, expected to be completed by Wednesday evening, comes with mixed emotions from its residents, many of whom fled to Calais because the town serves as the main port of entry to Britain.
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But the image of burning tents is not new in Calais; in fact, local officials say the burning of tents has become somewhat of a ritual for those living in the jungle.
“Some migrants follow traditions – we asked them not to do it – but they set ablaze their tents and their shelters when they leave,” said regional official Fabienne Buccio.
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At the height of its occupation, the area was regularly plagued by fires caused by refugees lighting open fires in cramped conditions. Refugees also set fire to parts of the camp in February to protest plans to dismantle the camp.
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This time around, some lit fires as a sign of defiance, refusing to accept that their dream of reaching Britain was over.
“We don’t care about problems that are to come after this. We did it because we don’t want to stay in France,” a 30-year-old Calais refugee named Hamid told Reuters. “We want to go to England and England only. It doesn’t matter if I go to jail here.”
Many of the Calais migrants have family already in the UK and most had planned to seek work, believing that job prospects are better in Britain.
Britain, however, bars most of them on the basis of European Union rules requiring them to seek asylum in the first EU states they set foot in.
On Tuesday, French police were deployed to keep order among the young migrants in the camp. Dozens jumped over railings in an attempt to get to the camp’s temporary processing centre, the first step to being relocated in France. Most identified themselves as unaccompanied minors with relatives across the English Channel in the U.K.
– With files from Reuters