Tensions high inside ‘Jungle’ refugee camp as demolition nears

(CNN) — Tensions are high inside “The Jungle,” a sprawling makeshift refugee camp in the French port town of Calais, where authorities were to begin evicting migrants Monday.

Authorities have given the thousands of people living there two options: seek asylum in France or return to their country of origin.

CALAIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 23: French riot police advance through tear gas and smoke from a fire to disperse migrants throwing stones and lighting fires at the Jungle migrant camp on October 23, 2016 in Calais, France. Volunteers and officials have began distributing leaflets and information to migrants as the french authorities prepare to start clearing the Jungle migrant and refugee camp tomorrow. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

CALAIS, FRANCE – OCTOBER 23: French riot police advance through tear gas and smoke from a fire to disperse migrants throwing stones and lighting fires at the Jungle migrant camp on October 23, 2016 in Calais, France. Volunteers and officials have began distributing leaflets and information to migrants as the french authorities prepare to start clearing the Jungle migrant and refugee camp tomorrow. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Some 6,900 refugees, more than 1,200 of them children, live in the encampment, a jumble of squalid tents and temporary shelters.

Clashes between migrants and police erupted Saturday night at the camp, said Sue Jex, head of operations for the charity Care 4 Calais. She said a number of buildings inside the camp were destroyed by fire.

Images from the camp show riot police firing tear gas.

A large number of police will be on hand to prevent crowd problems. More than 1,000 riot police officers were deployed to the camp Sunday ahead of the closure, an Interior Ministry spokesman told CNN. Horse-mounted police were seen near the camp.

A general view shows the "Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, northern France, on October 23, 2016 on the eve of the camp's planned evacuation. On the eve of the demolition of the Calais "Jungle" camp, French officials handed out flyers in several languages notifying migrants of the camp's imminent closure and urging them to abandon their dreams of reaching Britain. / AFP / DENIS CHARLET (Photo credit should read DENIS CHARLET/AFP/Getty Images)

A general view shows the “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais, northern France, on October 23, 2016 on the eve of the camp’s planned evacuation.
On the eve of the demolition of the Calais “Jungle” camp, French officials handed out flyers in several languages notifying migrants of the camp’s imminent closure and urging them to abandon their dreams of reaching Britain. / AFP / DENIS CHARLET (Photo credit should read DENIS CHARLET/AFP/Getty Images)

“It’s very tense because people know that change is coming,” Jex told CNN. “There is a real acceptance that the camp is going (away).”

The plan is to have the camp completely torn down by December, according to the French Ministry of the Interior. The camp sprawls over about 40 acres of sand dunes once used for landfill, with different nationalities in different sections.

Many in “The Jungle” are reluctant to register as refugees in France because their preferred destination is Britain.

“I try to stay in England but I don’t have money to go in England or to stay in France. I think it is so hard for me, it is not easy …” one Sudanese migrant said. “Only God can help me right now.”

A volunteer French teacher at a school in the camp said people are worried because they do not know where they will go.

CALAIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 23: A migrant is is surrounded by tear gas as he throws stones at French riot police at the Jungle migrant camp on October 23, 2016 in Calais, France. Volunteers and officials have began distributing leaflets and information to migrants as the french authorities prepare to start clearing the Jungle migrant and refugee camp tomorrow. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

CALAIS, FRANCE – OCTOBER 23: A migrant is is surrounded by tear gas as he throws stones at French riot police at the Jungle migrant camp on October 23, 2016 in Calais, France. Volunteers and officials have began distributing leaflets and information to migrants as the french authorities prepare to start clearing the Jungle migrant and refugee camp tomorrow. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

“They have no idea which place they’re headed to and above all if they are going to stay with their friends,” said Michel Abecassis. “We are all very worried, I am very worried. A lot of people are here with very close friends and of course their hope is to be in a reception center with their friends, and not to just be sent anywhere.”

On Sunday, foot patrols of volunteers distributed flyers explaining that the camp is to close and outlining the two options open to its occupants: seek asylum in France and be relocated within the country, or return to their country of origin.

Authorities say residents of the camp will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis beginning Monday at 8 a.m. local time.

Residents were given a letter Sunday, translated into several languages.

The letter, obtained by CNN, tells the residents to make their way to a reception point where they will be put on buses.

“Everybody living in the Calais jungle will have to leave in order to be sheltered in one of the French reception and counseling centers,” the letter said.

CALAIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 23: A painted message saying 'Bye Jungle' on a tent in the Jungle migrant camp on October 23, 2016 in Calais, France. Volunteers and official have began distributing leaflets and information to migrants as the french authorities prepare to start clearing the Jungle migrant and refugee camp tomorrow. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

CALAIS, FRANCE – OCTOBER 23: A painted message saying ‘Bye Jungle’ on a tent in the Jungle migrant camp on October 23, 2016 in Calais, France. Volunteers and official have began distributing leaflets and information to migrants as the french authorities prepare to start clearing the Jungle migrant and refugee camp tomorrow. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The letter assures migrants that they would be offered accommodation and meals.

Most of those living in the camp are from sub-Saharan Africa — Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia — and Afghanistan; they have spent months or even years there in the hope of reaching the UK, some 30 miles away across the English Channel. Refugees from war torn Iraq and Syria have also set up temporary homes in the Jungle.

Those who choose to apply for asylum will be offered the choice of two French regions. They will be taken to the location they choose by bus almost immediately and offered temporary accommodation in a shelter while their claim is processed.

Up to 60 buses are expected to leave the camp on Monday, with dozens of further departures through the week.

Special provisions are to be made for unaccompanied minors.

The evacuation operation is expected to last a week, but a ministry spokesman told CNN: “If it takes more time, so be it. We have all the time in the world.”

CALAIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 23: A portable chemical toilet burns as migrants clash with French riot police at the Jungle migrant camp on October 23, 2016 in Calais, France. Volunteers and official have began distributing leaflets and information to migrants as the french authorities prepare to start clearing the Jungle migrant and refugee camp tomorrow. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

CALAIS, FRANCE – OCTOBER 23: A portable chemical toilet burns as migrants clash with French riot police at the Jungle migrant camp on October 23, 2016 in Calais, France. Volunteers and official have began distributing leaflets and information to migrants as the french authorities prepare to start clearing the Jungle migrant and refugee camp tomorrow. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Anyone who opts to go home will be taken there by plane.

Camp inhabitants who have already sought asylum elsewhere within the European Union will be transported to that country while their application is processed.

Cleaners are expected to begin work at the site on Tuesday, expanding their “cleaning zone” as the evacuation proceeds.

The announcement comes days after a court challenge to halt the demolition of the camp failed.

At a press briefing in Geneva earlier this week, UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards said the closure was welcomed as long as the French government provided a suitable solution for the displaced. He noted that the lives of children would be particularly at risk during the demolition.

“This is important so that children don’t move on to other destinations and risk becoming exploited by human traffickers or end up living on the streets without any support,” he said. “Strengthened measures must be taken to reunite children with relatives in Europe.”

The UN says 200 of the unaccompanied children in Calais have been identified as having family links to the UK. The British government has pledged to offer them a home, but only a handful have so far been taken to the UK.