French authorities will Monday begin clearing “The Jungle,” the makeshift refugee camp at Calais, giving the thousands of people living there the option to seek asylum in France or to return to their country of origin.
The plan is to have the camp completely torn down by December, according to the French Ministry of the Interior.
Some 6,900 people, more than 1,200 of them children, live in the sprawling encampment, a jumble of squalid tents and temporary shelters near the northern French port town.
On Sunday, foot patrols of volunteers will distribute flyers explaining that the camp is to close, and outlining the two options open to them: seek asylum in France and be relocated within the country or return to their country of origin.
Authorities say residents of the Jungle will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis, beginning Monday at 8am, local time.
A large police presence will be on hand to prevent crowd problems; more than 1,250 officers have been mobilized for the first three days of the eviction operation.
Most of those living in the camp are from sub-Saharan Africa — Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia — and Afghanistan; they have spent months or even years there in the hope of reaching the UK, some 30 miles away across the English Channel. Refugees from war torn Iraq and Syria have also set up temporary homes in the Jungle.
Those who choose to apply for asylum will be offered the choice of two French regions; they will be taken to the location they choose by bus almost immediately and offered temporary accommodation in a shelter while their claim is processed.
Up to 60 buses are expected to leave the camp on Monday, with dozens of further departures through the week.
Special provisions are to be made for unaccompanied minors.
The evacuation operation is expected to last a week, but a ministry spokesman told CNN: “If it takes more time so be it. We have all the time in the world.”
Anyone who opts to go home will be taken there by plane.
Jungle inhabitants who have already sought asylum elsewhere within the European Union will be returned to that country while their application is dealt with.
Cleaners are expected to begin work at the site on Tuesday, expanding their “cleaning zone” as the evacuation proceeds.
The announcement comes days after a court challenge to halt the demolition of the camp failed.
At a press briefing in Geneva earlier this week, UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards said the closure was welcomed, as long as the French government provided a suitable solution for the displaced. He noted that the lives of children would be particularly at risk during the demolition.
“This is important so that children don’t move on to other destinations and risk becoming exploited by human traffickers or end up living on the streets without any support,” he said. “Strengthened measures must be taken to reunite children with relatives in Europe.”
The UN says 200 of the unaccompanied children in Calais have been identified as having family links to the UK; the British government has pledged to offer them a home, but only a handful have so far been taken to the UK.