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France Begins Clearing Out Migrant Camp In Calais


Today French authorities started emptying out Europe's largest shanty town near the port city of Calais. For years thousands of migrants have lived there in squalid conditions. They came hoping to somehow board trains and trucks passing through the port and get to England.

Instead they're being asked to move to one of 400 resettlement centers across France, and the camp will be bulldozed. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Calais on the first day of the operation.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Migrants with bags and rolling suitcases began streaming out of the makeshift camp before sunrise, hurrying toward what they hope will be a better life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Finish; finish.

NELSON: This departing resident lined up with other migrants outside of the registration center police set up a half mile away. Inside they were asked, where do you want to go, Eastern or Western France? Authorities then assigned them to a specific refugee center where they will remain until their asylum status is decided.

The French interior minister says 2,300 migrants - that's more than a third of those living in the camp - left voluntarily today on 45 buses for their new homes across France. Pierre-Henry Brandet is the French interior ministry spokesman.

PIERRE-HENRY BRANDET: (Speaking French).

NELSON: He told NPR no one was being forced to leave the camp or get on the buses, at least not yet. But that doesn't mean migrants didn't feel pressure to pack up and go, says Afghan Issa Jabakheir, who was one of the first residents to leave.

ISSA JABAKHEIR: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: He asks, "what choice do I have? The police are going to bulldoze the camp." Like most migrants here, Jabakheir yearned to make it to England, but he says he's given up on that dream and hopes he'll be allowed to stay in France. Catherin Stevenart, who is with the Catholic charity Caritas, predicts the calm police experience today will be short lived.

CATHERIN STEVENART: (Speaking French).

NELSON: "Only those migrants who are already registered as asylum seekers in France or otherwise willing to leave moved out," Stevenart says, adding, it's likely going to be a lot tougher for police to deal with migrants who don't want to go.

A few of those reluctant residents who I met were also from Afghanistan. They stood quietly around a fire, watching their camp mates depart.

(Speaking Dari).


NELSON: I asked the men if they plan to join the exodus, and they say, no way. One of the Afghans hints he's already registered as an asylum seeker in another EU country, which means he likely will be deported there if he signs in with the French authorities.

An Afghan teen, Sharam Behzadeh, tells me he and his friends are happy to cooperate with the French police because as unaccompanied minors, there is a good chance they will be approved for asylum.

SHARAM BEHZADEH: The weather is getting cold, and it will be a hard situation for them if we stayed in here for a long time. So it will be good that they have now plan - what you will do and where they should be, where they can start their life.

NELSON: Nearby, a group of Sudanese migrants who are moving out chat happily in Arabic with Caritas worker Mariam Guerey. She gets a bit teary when it's time to say goodbye.

MARIAM GUEREY: (Speaking Arabic).

NELSON: She tells them in Arabic to keep in touch they can. She also promises to hold onto the bike belonging to one of the men because he can't take it on the bus.

GUEREY: (Speaking French).

NELSON: Guerey says she's glad things went smoothly today, although she doesn't think the French government will be able to get rid of the camp as it hopes. She tells me it's famous the world over, and the migrants will keep coming. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Calais. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.