France has begun clearing the sprawling “Jungle” migrant camp as hundreds give up on their dreams of reaching Britain, a short sea crossing away.
Following sporadic outbreaks of unrest overnight, on Monday the migrants, with calm resignation, opted to be relocated in France while their asylum is considered.
By the end of the day more than 1,600 had left the squalid shanty-town outside Calais for reception centres across France. There were 7,000 migrants at the makeshift camp and removing them is expected to take a week.
Officials celebrated the peaceful start to yet another attempt to dismantle the camp, which has become a symbol of Europe’s failure to respond to the migration crisis as member states squabble over who should take those fleeing war and poverty.
The Socialist government says it is closing the camp on humanitarian grounds.
It plans to relocate them to 450 centres across France.
Many of the migrants are from Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea and want to reach Britain.
Britain, however, bars most of them on the basis of EU rules requiring them to seek asylum in the first member states they set foot in.
As the process began, the fate of about 1300 unaccompanied child migrants remained uncertain.
France has urged Britain to step up efforts to identify and resettle child migrants. London has given priority to children with family ties and discussions are underway with Paris over who should take in minors with no connections.
Britain’s Home Office agreed to suspend the transfer of more children, on the request of the French authorities. For now, children will be moved to converted shipping containers on the edge of the Jungle before being interviewed by French and British immigration officials, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency said.
Armed police earlier fanned out across the Jungle as the operation got underway.
Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said authorities didn’t need to use force and the large police presence was just for security.
Despite the calm, charity workers expect hundreds will try to stay and cautioned the mood could change later in the week when work begins on razing the camp.
– Matthias Blamont