They had spattered the area with notices, handwritten messages that spoke eloquently of their distress. “We need shelter and protection,” said one message. “We seek asylum and peace. The ‘jungle’ is our home,” said another bit of paper fastened to a tree. With the destruction of their habitat a dead certainty, most of them had melted away into the night, helped by humanitarian associations and some local residents.

“They” are the refugees, the illegal immigrants, the homeless of Calais — call them what you will. After long, tortuous journeys across land and sea, locked up in cargo containers or adrift at sea in flimsy boats unfit for navigation, they have finally landed here, at this northern tip of France, with Britain, their El Dorado, finally within sight.

They have come from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Somalia, Iran … and they all want just one thing, to reach Britain on the other side of the English Channel, to live and work and make a new life. Every night, they attempt to cross over into Britain on lorries crossing the Channel Tunnel. Most get caught. But that does not deter them. They try again and again, cheered by stories trickling through, of a few successful crossings.

Since 2002, when the Red Cross camp in the nearby town of Sangatte was destroyed on orders from the then Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, the immigrants of Calais have been living on a strip of lightly wooded sandy soil called “The Jungle”. In fact it is an unsightly slum, a gigantic squatters’ camp where an estimated 1,000-plus persons have been living in makeshift shelters in appalling conditions, without water or sanitation, plagued by thunderstorms, extreme heat or cold, worms, respiratory and skin diseases.

This morning, about a hundred heavily armed policemen began clearing out the slum, destroying the flimsy lean-tos made of branches, old blankets and chicken wire, arresting about 300 illegal immigrants.

Most of the inhabitants of the camp had already left, alerted by human rights groups and the U.N. Those that remained were the ones who could not be deported — Afghans, mainly, since theirs is a country at war. There were also a larger number of minors amongst the illegals, some of them as young as 12 or 13.

Pierre Bousquet, the prefect of the Pas de Calais region, told reporters that the operation had gone well. “We arrested 146 adults and 142 minors,” he said, adding that the adults were being interviewed by police. The minors have been sent to special centres.

A spokeswoman for the humanitarian association Salaam, which has worked tirelessly over the years for these immigrants, organising soup kitchens and a mobile shower unit told The Hindu: “This is scandalous. These people have been treated worse than dogs. The situation has been allowed to fester and rot. Neither the British or the French government or any other nation of the European Union has a coherent immigration policy. These people should have been offered asylum, given the possibility of starting a new life hear in France. Instead they are deported to the EU country from which they entered France and the French government temporarily washes its hands off them. Except they come back — time and time again. No human being should be treated thus.”

The French government felt it had to act against the migrants who try, repeatedly each night, to cross over into Britain on lorries making the crossing. Most fall prey to people traffickers. Most of them have run out of money and are reduced to living like animals on bits of charity handed out to them. And then, the British government has been leaning on the French to “do something”.

French Immigration Minister Eric Besson defended the move, saying the community had turned into a lawless, thug’s paradise run by armed groups. “It’s the base camp of the traffickers, with people who are exploited, victims of violence, there are bosses and deputies, it’s the law of the jungle that rules and on French territory the law of the jungle cannot continue to rule,” he said.

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