A French court gave the state the green light Thursday to raze makeshift tents and lean-tos used by hundreds of migrants at a sprawling slum in Calais, where many dream of slipping into Britain.
Tamping down fears of a violent confrontation, France's interior minister promised to treat the migrants humanely and not send in bulldozers to evict them.
The camp in the northern port city — known as "the jungle" — has been an embarrassing chapter in Europe's migrant crisis, and France announced this month that its densely populated southern half would be razed. The move prompted rights groups and migrant advocates to sue.
The court in Lille ruled that the makeshift shelters used by the migrants can be destroyed — but that common spaces like places of worship, schools and a library must be left standing.
Calais' prime location — with a major ferry port, Eurotunnel rail system and truck traffic crossing the English Channel — has put it in the crosshairs of the migrant crisis. Weary travelers come driven by a dream that they will find peace and prosperity in English-speaking Britain. Lacking any papers, they have to sneak across the Channel, and at least 20 migrants have died trying since late June.
Officials say moving migrants out of the Calais slum will be a better solution for all, since many have been languishing in poverty and hopelessness after nearby borders have been sealed by increasing security. Officials estimate the number of migrants who will be affected at 800 to 1,000, while humanitarian organizations say over 3,000 migrants live there.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve lauded the court's decision, saying it "fully supported" the government's strategy for dealing with the camp.
"It has never been our intention to send in bulldozers to destroy the camp," Cazeneuve added.
Another filthy camp known as a haven for smugglers near Dunkirk, France, is being relocated to a more hygienic site with heated tents under the supervision of the charity group Doctors Without Borders.
Moving the migrants out will be France's most dramatic step yet to end Calais' yearslong migrant problem, which has transformed the city of nearly 80,000 into a high-security tension point, fueled far-right sentiment and defied British and French efforts to make the issue go away.
The same court in Lille ordered the state in November to clean up the camp by adding running water, toilets and garbage bins, count the number of minors without families — now 326 — and help those in distress.
As of late, however, an increasingly vocal backlash against the Calais migrants has been punctuated by militia-style violence. Truckers have grown exasperated or fearful of increasingly bold migrants trying to sneak rides across the English Channel.
A sense of anxiety mounted in the camp Thursday ahead of the court ruling. Nearby Belgium, concerned about an influx of Calais evacuees, implemented border checks.
"Obviously, they are scared and concerned about what is going to happen," said Ed Sexton of Help Refugees, one of numerous British charities working in the slum. "The people have been here months, living in terrible conditions, but they don't want their shelters destroyed."
Camp residents were offered the choice of being sent to temporary welcome centers around France, or staying in one of 125 heated containers set up last month behind the camp.
Humanitarian workers predicted those who refuse to leave would simply gather in small groups elsewhere around Calais and the northern French coast.
"You're basically going to scatter a lot of people," said Maya Konforti of the group Migrant Shelters.
An Afghan who identified himself only as Jan said he would look elsewhere if the Calais migrant camp was closed.
"They are the government ... we can't fight them," he said.
It's far from certain, however, that razing the slum will be a turning point for Calais.
A Red Cross-run camp in nearby Sangatte — which was used during its three-year existence by 68,000 refugees — was shut down in 2002. Afterward, hundreds of migrants simply moved up the coast to set up small camps around Calais.