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Calais migrants play for time ahead of planned eviction

CALAIS, France (Reuters) - Refugees squatting in a shanty town outside Calais in northern France ignored an official order to evacuate part of their camp, hoping a court hearing on Tuesday will halt its demolition.

Volunteers from "Care 4 Calais" walk between makeshift shelters in the southern part of a camp for migrants called the "jungle", on a rainy winter day in Calais, northern France, February 22, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Thousands of people fleeing poverty and war in Africa and the Middle East have taken shelter in the makeshift camp known as the “jungle” after attempts to force their way into Britain via the Channel Tunnel were repelled by French police.

The migrants are drawn by the English language, friends or relatives in Britain, as well as better job prospects and living conditions, but their presence has caused tension with some of the local population and forced a permanent police deployment.

Under pressure to reduce the migrant presence, local authorities said on Feb. 15 that up to 1,000 people out of an estimated total population of 4,000 would have to leave the southern part of the camp within a week.

The deadline expires on Tuesday at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) after which authorities will be empowered to remove remaining tents and trash, if necessary by force.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said residents would be evacuated in a “humanitarian operation” and there was sufficient alternative accommodation for all either in the region or elsewhere in France.

“We have nowhere to go so we will just wait,” Aziz, 42, from Pakistan, told Reuters. He and 16 other refugees sleep on the floor at the rear of a wooden hut converted into a shopping booth.

Mohammed, 33, fled Afghanistan five months ago and works in a small coffee house nearby with a sign marked “Kabul cafe.”

“I hate it here, but at the same time this is where we live now, where we socialise, we don’t want to go to a closed space that will be like a prison,” he added, referring to a state-run shelter made of converted shipping containers opened last month.

Charity activists on the ground say the official numbers are understated and closing half of the “jungle” will force some 3,400 people to leave, including women and some 300 to 400 unaccompanied minors.

“We have used a strict methodology based on waste and water consumption”, said Maya Konforti, who works with local association Auberge des Migrants (Migrant Hostel).

“An evacuation of the southern part of the jungle will put an end to most of the services migrants enjoy in the camp such as bars, shops, but also schools and churches, places of life,” she said.

Local authorities say migrants will be offered places in other refugees centres across France or moved to the state-run shelters which have no toilets and no direct water access.

The container park has around 500 spare places out of a capacity of 1,500, the authorities say.

Eight NGOs filed a request for a temporary injunction to halt the evacuation with the administrative court in regional capital Lille last week. A hearing is due on Tuesday afternoon.

Regional government representative Fabienne Buccio told journalists on Sunday she would comply with any judicial ruling but that the “jungle” had to diminish in size.

Editing by Paul Taylor