CALAIS - Over 1,000 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.

Around 1,200 police officers - some in riot gear - were on hand as several hundred migrants queued to be put on coaches for shelters across France. “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.

The first coachload carrying 50 Sudanese left at about 8:45 am (0645 GMT), heading for the Burgundy region of east-central France. By early afternoon, 25 buses were on their way with a total of 1,051 people aboard.

Police at one point intervened to break up a scuffle but Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the operation was proceeding in a generally “calm and orderly manner.”  The Jungle’s hundreds of unaccompanied minors have been the main focus of NGOs’ concerns.

In an 11th-hour gesture on their behalf, Britain has taken in nearly 200 teenagers over the past week, mostly children with relatives in Britain, but the transfers were on hold Monday.

Hundreds more have been interviewed by British immigration officials and many are still awaiting a reply. They will be provisionally housed with other minors in containers in a part of the Jungle where families had been living. On Tuesday, demolition crews will move in to start tearing down the slum, one of the biggest in Europe where 6,000 to 8,000 people - among them an estimated 1,300 children - have been living in dire conditions.

Officials said they were on target to move 2,000 people on Monday. 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. 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 an unprecedented migrant influx.

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, including France’s own National Front.

Those seeking to smuggle into Britain, believing it to offer 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 in the northern town have been battling near nightly attempts by migrants to climb onto trucks heading across the Channel.

Fresh graffiti on the walls of Jungle shelters and shops reflected the fears of some that Britain may be slipping out of reach. “I lost my hope,” read one tag. “Is this justice? No,” read another.

Karhazi, a young Afghan, sounded a defiant note: “They’ll have to force us to leave. We want to go to Britain.”

The redistribution of the migrants is a risky enterprise for Socialist President Francois Hollande, coming six months before national elections in which migration is a key issue.

Some French people have opposed plans to resettle asylum-seekers in their midst.

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 where migrants in January briefly occupied a ferry, told BBC radio he was “a very, very happy man.”

“It’s for us really the D-Day,” he said, hailing an end to the “constant stress” of drivers fearful of being ambushed by migrants. Dozens of youths have been killed on the road or trying up 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 km (seven miles) away, along with dozens of other migrants.

A total of 145 buses have been laid on over the three days to take adults and families to 451 shelters nationwide.

 

 

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