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Afghan migrants brace for eviction from French ‘jungle’

Calais — More than 200 mostly Afghan boys and men braced Monday for a showdown with French riot police preparing to raze the "jungle," a makeshift migrant camp on the Channel coast they call their home.

France has said the sandy patch of scrubland near the port of Calais, where migrants gather to try to gain passage to Britain, will be evacuated this week, with reports suggesting the raid could take place Tuesday at dawn.

"We have no idea what the police will do, if they will take us or let us go free," said Bashir, an English teacher from northern Afghanistan.

"But here we already made our place. We have our houses, our showers and our mosque," said the 24-year-old, who paid 15,000 dollars (10,000 euros) to journey to Europe via Pakistan and Istanbul.

Juma, a 25-year-old from the Baglan region of Afghanistan who arrived in the tent city last month after he was evicted from a migrant camp in a Paris park, was determined to stay put.

"It’s not the first time I’ve been caught by the police. This is our home now. We have nowhere else to go. We spent everything we had getting here and have no way to leave," he said, as a cluster of teenage boys nodded in assent.

Like them, thousands of mainly male migrants, from Afghanistan, Iraq and other troubled nations, have headed to Calais in the past decade to try to jump on a ferry or a train crossing the Channel tunnel to Britain.

But government officials say the Calais "jungle" has become a haven for people-smuggling gangs and a no-go zone for locals, with appalling sanitary conditions blamed for an outbreak of scabies in the past few months.

City officials support the police operation, saying the situation has become unbearable and denouncing a spike in offences against residents.

From a peak of 700 mostly Afghan Pashtuns based in the "jungle" in June, aid groups say two thirds have fled since the government indicated it would close the camp in April.

"Most have left for Britain, Belgium, Holland or Norway, the others have scattered into thin air," said Thomas Suel of Terre d’Errance, one of a coalition of local aid groups.

Of those who remain many are minors who cannot be deported, or others "who simply don’t have the money or connections to leave," said Vincent Lenoir, of the Salam migrant support group.

Lenoir estimates that 1,000 migrants managed to slip into Britain over a fortnight in late August and early September — after months of a border police lockdown.

He believes the spike suggests Paris and London reached a "deal" to clear the jungle of migrants before closing it down for good.

Opposite the tent city’s makeshift mosque, surrounded by pink geraniums in well-kept planters, white sheets flutter between poles with messages in French and Pashtun for the French authorities.

"We need shelter and protection," reads one. "We don’t want to go back even if we die here."

French authorities operated a centre for migrants at Sangatte, near Calais but closed it in 2002 because of crime and accusations from London that it was acting as a magnet for migrants headed for Britain.

Paris says it is determined to "choke off" the pattern drawing migrants to the Channel port and crack down on human-trafficking, with dozens of squats closed and more operations to come.

French Immigration Minister Eric Besson said an "individual solution" would be found for each migrant — whether a voluntary return home, an asylum request or expulsion — insisting there would be no forced returns to unsafe countries.

Besson told EU counterparts in Brussels that 180 people have applied for asylum while another 180 have accepted to return home voluntarily.

"France will respect its commitment to closing the ‘jungle’ by the end of the week," he said.

Aid groups say the crackdown will simply push migrants further underground, making them more vulnerable to traffickers and criminal gangs.

From Saint Malo in Brittany to the Belgian border, they count some 17 migrant camps and squats along the Channel coast, where hundreds of Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans or Vietnamese await their attempt at the British El Dorado.