(RFE/RL) -- French police have raided a makeshift refugee camp near Calais after officials said it had become a magnet for crime and a base for human traffickers.
Hundreds of migrants had set up shelters in the camp, called "The Jungle," to wait for a chance to stow away on vehicles heading for the United Kingdom.
Of 278 illegal migrants detained during the dawn raid, most were men and youths from Afghanistan. More than 130 declared they were under the age of 18. Authorities say they will be given a choice of applying for asylum or being returned to their home countries.
Among the migrants at the camp was a young man named Han, who says he fled his home in Pakistan earlier this year to escape fighting between government forces and Taliban militants.
"People want to go to the United Kingdom because when they reach the U.K. they deal with us like humans," Han said. "But if we seek asylum here in France, you can see, the people are living here in 'The Jungle.' Even if they seek asylum, they have no place to stay. So that is why the people, and all the guys here, decide to go to the U.K."
French Immigration Minister Eric Besson said the authorities were forced to close the camp because it had become an "operating base" for human traffickers.
"I've seen a number of people describe it as a pleasant humanitarian camp. It is not a humanitarian camp. It is the base camp of people traffickers and there you find people who are exploited, the victims of violence," Besson says.
"You have chiefs and cliques. It's the law of the jungle that reigns there. On the territory of the French republic, the law of the jungle can't last eternally. The state of law needs to be established in Calais, to the benefit of the migrants themselves who are exploited, but also to the benefit of the inhabitants of Calais and its surrounding area, whose patience has been sorely tested for several months now," he added.
'It Is A Scandal'
Local officials from Calais supported the raid, citing a recent spike in crime, appalling sanitary conditions, and an outbreak of scabies.
The authorities say adult migrants have been placed in detention while authorities attempt to verify whether their personal situations allow them to apply for asylum in France. Pierre Debousquet, a local police chief in Calais, says those with legal status will be released with an offer of accommodation in Calais or nearby.
"We're working with the British to make the border less porous. We are working with our European neighbors to try and reach more effective and secure solutions to the problems of migrants. This is a problem that goes far beyond our borders," Debousquet said.
"In the meantime, we couldn't accept this 'Jungle.' It is a scandal in terms of human rights and sanitation, in terms of delinquency. And the first victims were the migrants who were camped here," he said.
But rights activists denounced the action as a media event that's forcing refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other troubled countries to go into hiding rather than seek help.
"We are against 'The Jungle.' It is clear that 'The Jungle' needs to be destroyed. It is a place that shouldn't exist in France in this day and age -- a place where people live worse than animals," said Sylvie Copyans of the Salam migrant support group, who monitored the police action.
"We agree that we need to get rid of 'The Jungle.' But what we need after that are solutions. What will become of the people? Where will they go? If we get rid of it just to put them onto the streets, then the problem isn't really solved," she added.
Hundreds of migrants have fled "The Jungle" since the government first announced it would shut down the camp last week.
The authorities had earlier operated an official center for migrants nearby at Sangatte. That facility was closed in 2002 because of a rising crime rate there and British accusations the camp was a magnet for migrants sneaking into the United Kingdom.