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Several fires burned inside the Calais ‘Jungle’ Tuesday evening one day after French authorities began a major operation to relocate migrants and demolish the notorious shantytown.
More than 30 fires had been contained by early morning Wednesday, though several dozen shacks continued to smoulder. A Syrian man was taken to hospital with injuries to his eardrums after a gas canister exploded in the flames.
The fires broke out near the entrance of the camp in an area that had once housed restaurants frequented by migrants.
“Someone burned our tents. Maybe they used petrol or something, I don’t know, but the fires spread fast. We had to run out in the middle of the night,” said Arman Khan, a 17-year-old Afghan.”I left all my things behind, I have nothing now.”
Calais Police Commissioner Patrick Visser-Bourdon said an estimated 150 to 200 migrants were brought to safety as firefighters fought the blazes.
Riot police then cordoned off the demolition area while aid workers and government officials checked that the dwellings were empty.
Others carted away the debris and abandoned belongings – mattresses, multi-coloured blankets, supermarket trollies and so on – in small earth-movers.
Regional prefect Fabienne Buccio said it was difficult to prevent the fires, which became something of a ritual earlier this year when one section of the camp was partly dismantled.
“Some migrants follow traditions – we asked them not to do it – but they set ablaze their tents and their shelters when they leave,” she said.
“We told them not to do it, but some… do it anyway. We are on standby, the fire brigade is in the vicinity to guarantee security and to prevent the fire from spreading.”
A spokesman for local authorities told FRANCE 24 correspondent Catherine Norris-Trent that the fires were more likely a last-ditch response to the evacuation.
“One theory from the authorities in the area is that this was a last act of despair, perhaps by the Afghan community who lived in this part of the ‘Jungle’,” Norris-Trent said.
Wearing hardhats and orange overalls in the morning fog, a team of around 15 workers resumed tearing down tents and makeshift shelters at the camp that has become a symbol of Europe’s migrant crisis.
Located next to the port of Calais, the ‘Jungle’ has for years been a launchpad for migrants attempting to make it to Britain by sneaking onto lorries or jumping onto trains heading across the Channel.
Since Monday, 3,242 adults have been transferred to centres around France and 772 unaccompanied minors have been moved to shipping containers converted into temporary shelters in the ‘Jungle’, the interior ministry said.
The fate of unaccompanied minors remains a particular concern.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Tuesday that all those “with proven family links in Britain” would eventually be transferred and that London had committed to reviewing all other cases where it was “in the child’s interest” to settle across the Channel.
‘It’s very scary’
British Interior Minister Amber Rudd on Monday pledged to bring eligible children from France to Britain “as quickly and as safely as possible”, without specifying numbers.
The head of worldwide charity Save The Children on Tuesday called for a smooth process to ensure their safety.
“It’s very scary, I think, for kids particularly. You see them coming in with bulldozers. This is where children have been living for weeks and months in some cases,” Carolyn Miles, CEO and president of the charity, told AFP in New York.
Britain took in around 200 teenagers in the week before the clearance began as an eleventh-hour gesture, with the transfers resuming Tuesday after a hiatus on Monday.
The town’s Mayor Natacha Bouchart said seeing people queue to leave the camp was “a great relief” after a year in which police had dealt with near-nightly attempts by migrants to reach Britain.
But many locals fear more settlements will sprout up in the area once the ‘Jungle’ is razed.