France began clearing the sprawling “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais today, with hundreds carrying suitcases queuing outside a hangar to be resettled in reception centres across the country.
The first buses departed less than an hour after immigration workers started the operation and officials predicted some 2,500 would leave on the first day.
Armed police fanned out around the warehouse and across the squalid shanty town after a night during which small groups of migrants burned toilet blocks and hurled stones at security forces in protest at the plans to dismantle the camp.
The government says it is closing the camp, home to 6,500 migrants fleeing war and poverty, on humanitarian grounds. It plans to relocate them to 450 centres across France.
“I hope this works out. I’m alone and I just have to study,” said Amadou Diallo from the West African nation of Guinea. “It doesn’t matter where I end up, I don’t really care.”
Many of the migrants and refugees hail from countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea and had wanted to reach Britain, which bars most of them on the basis of EU rules requiring them to seek asylum in the first European country they set foot in.
But even as the process began, the fate of about 1,300 unaccompanied child migrants remained uncertain. On Friday a French Interior Ministry official said negotiations continued over who should take children with no family ties in Britain.
The migrants will be separated into families, adults, unaccompanied minors and vulnerable individuals, including elderly people and single women.
They will then be bussed to the reception centres where they will receive medical checks and, if they have not already done so, decide whether to apply for asylum.
The far-right National Front party said the government plan would create mini-Calais camps across France.
Officials expect 60 buses to leave the camp today. The government expects the evacuation will take at least a week.
While calm prevailed today, charity workers expect hundreds will try and stay and cautioned the mood could change later in the week when work begins on dismantling the camp.
“There’s a risk tensions increase in the week because at some point the bulldozers are going to have to come in,” said Fabrice Durieux from the charity Salam.
Others warned that many migrants who remained determined to reach Britain would simply scatter into the surrounding countryside, only to regroup in Calais at a later date.
“Each time they dismantle part of the camp it’s the same thing. You’re going to see them go into hiding and then come back. The battles will continue,” said Christian Salome, president of non-profit group Auberge des Migrants.