CALAIS, France – French police cleared out then bulldozed a squalid, sprawling forest camp near the northern city of Calais on Tuesday, detaining hundreds of illegal immigrants who had hoped to slip across the English Channel into Britain.
French Immigration Minister Eric Besson, who visited the site known as "the Jungle," called it a "base camp for human traffickers" and said he would return the rule of law to the northern French coast.
"The law of the jungle cannot last eternally," Besson said. "A state of law must be re-established in Calais."
The people who camped here — mainly immigrants from Afghanistan — have strained relations between Britain and France and become a symbol of Europe's struggle with illegal immigration.
A total of 278 people — nearly half of them minors — were detained in the first part of the operation, said Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, the top official for the Pas-de-Calais region.
"This operation is not targeting the migrants themselves, it is targeting the logistics of the human traffickers ... who exploit them," he said.
Refugees in jeans and sweatshirts, many apparently in their teens, carried knapsacks and blankets as they were led away in single lines by police. Activists yelled at police with bullhorns. Some formed a human chain around the refugees and briefly scuffled with police as they took the men and boys one by one.
Some refugees sobbed as they were loaded onto buses, saying they wanted to stay in the camp and voicing fears about being returned to Afghanistan. Police struggled with others.
Besson said there was no violence in the operation and all personal belongings were collected and being sorted in the Calais mosque. Thirty interpreters and a medical team helped authorities and 200 temporary beds were arranged for the immigrants.
Bulldozers and backhoes were later brought in to raze the maze of makeshift tents built from sticks and sheets of plastic amid the sand and brush. Workers with chain saws cut down the trees and scrub brush that had supported the tents.
While the encampment was squalid, it was widely viewed by the immigrants as a better option than being expelled and it allowed them to keep hoping that they would one day reach Britain.
Activist group Refugee Action called the police operation "horrific" and inhumane but agreed the camp should not have been permitted to sprout up in the first place.
"They should never have been allowed to rot there like this. It's appalling neglect and has allowed false expectation to be built up," said Sandy Buchan, the group's chief executive.
Britain is viewed as an easier place than France to make a life, even clandestinely, a view perpetuated by traffickers and family members or friends already there.
British Home Secretary Alan Johnson said he was "delighted" that the camp was being closed. Britain has ruled out taking the migrants in, and Johnson said genuine refugees should apply for asylum in the country where they entered the EU.
Most of the immigrants reached Calais after costly and dangerous clandestine journeys across Asia and Europe, by foot or hidden in trucks and boats.
The immigrants try to elude the elaborate border security network, including heat sensors and infrared cameras, at the port of Calais or the Channel tunnel that carries Eurostar trains and other undersea traffic to Britain. Nearly a decade ago, many thousands made it across by slipping inside or under trucks traveling through the tunnel. Today only a few make it, but enough to sustain hope.
Besson said other, smaller camps scattered around the region — sheltering Iraqi Kurds and illegal migrants from other trouble spots — would also be cleared out this week.
He said each immigrant was being offered individual options, and that to date 180 have agreed to return to their homelands and 170 started applying for asylum in France. The others will be expelled from France, primarily to Greece, the point where most of the migrants first entered the European Union.
"Expelling them will do nothing, just disperse them," the French rights activist group CSP59 said.
For France, "the Jungle" was inhumane and a sign of what is wrong with European immigration policy. The 27 nations that make up the EU each maintain their own immigration policy, complicated by some open borders, creating a soup of laws, accords and bilateral agreements.
"France wants greater European solidarity," Besson told a news conference, saying he hopes all EU members will sign on to an immigration action plan at an Oct. 29-30 summit.
Besson also rejected criticism that France was just passing the problem of illegal migrants on to Greek authorities.
The U.N. refugee agency said Greece has been making it harder recently for asylum seekers to gain refugee status. The UNHCR said Greece granted only 379 people refugee status in 2008 out of 20,000 asylum applications. Greece says it detained more than 146,000 illegal immigrants in 2008, a 30 percent increase from the previous year.
The U.N. agency has also criticized Italy for its immigration practices.
Greece, Italy and Spain have repeatedly called for more help from the European Union to tackle the problem of illegal immigration.
As many as 1,000 people at a time called the Calais "Jungle" their home, but their numbers dwindled when it became clear police would act this week.
In the camp before the raid, piles of garbage littered the scrubland. The illegal migrants, some as young as 14, baked flat bread over a fire in a tin drum. The only amenities were a spigot of water at the entrance, a homemade toilet hidden behind plastic and, in a scrupulously cleared area, a mosque made of blue tarp and ringed with pots of flowers.
In 2002, authorities dismantled a Red Cross-run camp in nearby Sangatte, which had been used by illegal migrants as a springboard for sneaking across the Channel. The migrants kept coming back even after the camp was shut down.