Calais, France, Oct 24 – Almost 2,000 migrants rode buses out of the Calais “Jungle” on Monday as French authorities kicked off an operation to dismantle the notorious camp that has become a symbol of Europe’s refugee crisis.
“Bye Bye, Jungle!” one group of migrants shouted as they hauled luggage through the muddy lanes of the shantytown where thousands of mainly Afghans, Sudanese and Eritreans had holed up, desperate to sneak into Britain.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said 1,918 migrants had left Calais on buses bound for 80 reception centres across France under a heavy police presence.
“We don’t know yet where we are going, but it will obviously be better than the Jungle, which was made for animals not humans,” said Wahid, a 23-year-old Afghan.
Police at one point intervened to break up a scuffle but Cazeneuve said the operation proceeded in a generally “calm and orderly manner”.
The Jungle’s hundreds of unaccompanied minors have been the main focus of charities’ concerns.
In an eleventh-hour gesture, Britain has taken in nearly 200 teenagers over the past week, mostly children with relatives there, but the transfers were on hold Monday.
Hundreds more have been interviewed by British immigration officials and many are still awaiting a reply.
Some 400 youngsters are being provisionally housed in shipping containers in a part of the Jungle where families had been living.
Cazeneuve said all unaccompanied minors “with proven family links in Great Britain” would eventually be transferred from the Jungle across the Channel.
British Interior Minister Amber Rudd said London was contributing up to £36 million (40 million euros, $44 million) towards the operation to clear the squalid camp, as well as to help reinforce Britain’s border controls in Calais.
On Tuesday, demolition crews will move in to start tearing down the slum, one of the biggest in Europe where an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people have been living in dire conditions.
The operation is set to continue through Wednesday.
Christian Salome, head of the Auberge des Migrants (Migrants’ Hostel) charity, said the process was “working well because these are people who were waiting impatiently to leave”.
“I’m much more concerned about later in the week when the only ones remaining are those who do not want to leave, who still want to reach England,” he said, estimating their number at around 2,000. The interior ministry dismissed that figure as exaggerated.
On Sunday night, the police fired tear gas during sporadic skirmishes with migrants around the camp.
Riots erupted when the authorities razed the southern half of the settlement in March.
– ‘Is this justice?’ –
Located on wasteland next to the port of Calais, the four-square-kilometre (1.5-square-mile) Jungle has become a symbol of Europe’s failure to resolve its worst migration crisis since World War II.
More than one million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa poured into Europe last year, sowing divisions across the 28-nation bloc and fuelling the rise of far-right parties.
Those seeking to smuggle themselves into Britain, believing it offers better chances of work and integration than France, have been converging on Calais for well over a decade. The first makeshift camp on the site of the Jungle dates back to 2002.
Over the past year, police have battled near nightly attempts by migrants to climb onto trucks heading across the Channel.
The redistribution of the migrants is a risky enterprise for Socialist President Francois Hollande, six months before elections in which migration will be a key issue.
Some have opposed plans to resettle asylum-seekers in their communities.
In the peaceful eastern village of Chardonnay — known the world over for its namesake grapes — the two dozen young Sudanese asylum seekers arriving Monday were met with suspicion from residents.
Locals watched from a distance as the men got off the bus in the village, which will eventually host 50 asylum seekers compared to a population of just 200 villagers.
“This massive arrival of migrants, it’s inappropriate,” fumed resident Joelle Chevaux, out walking her dog.
But in other towns people gathered to welcome the new arrivals, with some 200 pro-migrant protesters turning out at the interior ministry in the capital chanting “Paris, Calais, solidarity!” and 250 in the city of Nantes, according to police.
– Risk of deportation –
French authorities say those who agree to be relocated can apply for asylum in France. Those who resist face possible deportation.
Jean-Marc Puissesseau, chief executive of Calais port, told Britain’s BBC radio he was “a very, very happy man” and hailing an end to the “constant stress” of drivers fearful of being ambushed by migrants.
Dozens of people have been killed on the road or while trying to jump onto passing trains.
Puissesseau warned that new camps would sprout up around Calais unless police remained vigilant.
A Syrian man told AFP he had decamped from the Jungle at the weekend to another site about 12 kilometres (seven miles) away, along with dozens of other migrants.