CALAIS, France - French riot police on Tuesday moved Afghan men and youths out of a makeshift camp known as "the Jungle" which is used as a base to launch risky attempts to get across the Channel to Britain.
A dawn operation was launched to evacuate the camp on a patch of sandy scrubland in the Channel port of Calais, with police arresting 278 migrants. The migrants gathered behind banners with slogans pleading with French authorities for shelter and protection.
But Immigration Minister Eric Besson said action had to be taken against migrant trafficking rings. "What I want is to dismantle this 'jungle', which is the operating base for human traffickers," Besson told RTL radio.
Activists opposed the raid however. "It's a scandal," said Jean-Claude Lenoir of the Salam migrant support group. "We can't have soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and treat Afghans seeking refuge here with such little dignity."
The 'jungle' inhabitants, many of them minors, rose at dawn with the muezzin's call to prayer lining up and braced for the police raid.
Police, some with truncheons but mostly lightly armed, started leading out the migrants one by one. They followed without resistance, some in tears.
Minor scuffles broke out between police and several dozen activists who set up a human chain around the migrants, shouting "no border, no nation, stop deportation".
Asked if he was afraid, 18-year-old Bilal Hazarbauz smiled: "Maybe they will deport me to Afghanistan.
"But where else can we go? This our home, there is no other place."
Bilal and the others were expected to be transferred to a detention centre in the nearby town of Coquelles, local aid groups say.
But they also warn that many will be end up back on the streets after a few weeks. "They are going to be scattered across the countryside and be at the mercy of traffickers," said Lenoir. "At least here the young people had built a kind of community. It's tragic."
The authorities say each would be migrants will be offered an individual option.
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.
The government announced last week it would evacuate the "jungle" which it says 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.
Calais officials support the police operation, saying the situation has become unbearable and denouncing a spike in offences against residents.
Police started a crackdown on migrant squats and trafficking networks across the region six months ago.
Aid groups have condemned the 'jungle' raid as a media stunt that would simply push migrants further underground, making them more vulnerable to traffickers and criminal gangs.
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.
French authorities operated a centre for migrants at Sangatte, near Calais but closed it in 2002 because of crime and British accusations that it was a magnet for migrants wanting to cross the Channel.
France says it is determined to stop migrants heading for Calais and crack down on human-trafficking, with dozens of squats closed and more operations to come.
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.