PARIS Plans to dismantle the "Jungle" migrant camp in northern France where thousands of refugees are holed up will go ahead to "take people out of the slums," France's asylum chief pledged after a group of charities asked a court to halt the closure.
Over 6,000 refugees live in the makeshift camp in squalid conditions, dreaming of reaching Britain, barely 21 miles (33 km) away across the English Channel.
The French government has now undertaken to resettle them to small reception centres throughout the country and wants to have the Jungle closed by the end of the month.
"Calais is over, it's finished," said Pascal Brice, the director of Ofpra, the agency in charge of handling asylum requests in France, referring to the makeshift camp.
"What is at stake is for this message to get across and for people to realise there's no point in going there, that it's a dead-end," Brice told Reuters and a small group of European newspapers in a joint interview.
A tightening of security in Calais makes it "near impossible" to slip through towards Britain, Brice said, and refugees are being persuaded to apply for asylum in France instead of attempting the perilous journey to Britain, often in the back of trucks.
"What matters is to get people out of these slums," Brice said. "We need to convince people. We've been doing a lot of groundwork to accompany them in the process of abandoning their project to go to Britain. It's very difficult. It's like a mourning process."
Given that Britain remains a favoured destination for many refugees and migrants due to family links, the language they are often more likely to speak than French, and higher prospects of employment, charities say many will still come to Calais even if the Jungle is no more.
Brice said that was the focus of much of ongoing talks now, including with charities.
"We need to take into account the possibility that some still come - albeit in smaller numbers - and make sure we can move them on to (France's) national asylum process," Brice said.
He added that there had been no decision yet but talks were looking into the idea of allowing parts of the Grand-Synthe migrant camp in nearby Dunkirk to remain and not be dismantled.
Brice said he anticipates a maximum of 100,000 asylum requests to be made in France this year, an increase of 20 percent from 2015 but still much smaller than the million expected to arrive in Germany.
France promised last year to take in 30,000 refugees stranded in countries bordering on Syria, as well as in Greece and Italy as part of an EU-wide resettlement plan. Some 4,000 have been taken in so far, Brice said.
(Reporting by Ingrid Melander; editing by Mark Heinrich)