Migrants lugging their meagre belongings boarded buses Monday taking them from the Calais “Jungle” under a French plan to raze the notorious camp that has become a symbol of Europe's refugee crisis.
“Bye Bye, Jungle!” a group of migrants shouted as they hauled luggage through the muddy lanes of the shantytown where thousands from Africa and the Middle East had holed up, desperate to sneak into Britain.
Around 1,200 police officers — some in riot gear — were on hand as scores of Sudanese and Eritrean men queued from dawn outside a hangar to be among the first 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 midday, several hundred people were standing in line and 16 buses were already on the road.
As the crowd swelled, police intervened to break up a scuffle and prevent a stampede but the operation was generally proceeding “in a calm and orderly manner”, according to Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.
Demolition crews will on Tuesday move in to start tearing down the camp, one of the biggest in Europe where 6,000-8,000 people, among them an estimated 1,300 children, have been living for months.
Officials said they aimed to relocate up to 2,500 people on the first day and complete the operation by Wednesday evening.
Christian Salome, head of the Auberge des Migrants (Migrants' Hostel), one of the Jungle's leading charities, said that those who departed on Monday had been impatient 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.
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?'
As the evacuation got under way some migrants were still clinging to hopes of a new life across the Channel, believing their chances of finding a job and integrating there to be better.
New graffiti on the walls of Jungle shelters and shops reflected the fears of some at seeing Britain slip 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.”
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 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 migrants have been killed trying to jump onto trucks or trains entering the Channel Tunnel.
Puissesseau warned that new camps would sprout up around Calais unless police remained vigilant.
The migrants are being divided into families, single men, unaccompanied minors and other people considered vulnerable.
A total of 145 buses have been laid on over the three days to take adults and families to 451 shelters nationwide.
British officials have been racing to process unaccompanied child refugees seeking refuge across the water.
By Saturday, the number of minors given a one-way ticket to Britain under a fast-track process for children that began 10 days ago had reached 194, according to a French charity helping in the process.
Hundreds more have been interviewed and many are still waiting for a reply.
They will be provisionally housed with other minors in containers in a part of the Jungle where families had been living.