CALAIS, France — Before dawn broke, long lines of migrants waited in chilly temperatures to board buses in the port city of Calais, carrying meager belongings and timid hope that they were headed to a brighter future, despite giving up their dreams of life across the English Channel in Britain. Closely watched by more than 1,200 police, the first of dozens of buses began transferring them to reception centers around France where they can apply for asylum. More police patrolled inside the camp, among them officers from the London police force.
Migrants — from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and elsewhere — have flocked to the Calais region for nearly two decades, living in mini-jungles. But the sprawling camp in the sand dunes of northern France became emblematic of Europe’s migrant crisis, expanding as migrant numbers grew and quickly evolving into Europe’s largest slum, supported by aid groups, and a black eye on France’s image.
The camp shutdown left some, like Imran Khan, an Afghan who was fingerprinted in another country before coming to France, with a tough choice — get on a bus and risk expulsion or go on the run as winter approaches. Under European rules, asylum seekers must be returned to the country where they were fingerprinted on arrival. “I will decide tomorrow what to do,” the 35-year-old said.
By nightfall on Monday, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said 1,918 people had been processed and sent to 80 centers around France. Another 400 unaccompanied minors were being housed in heated shelters at the camp. The operation, expected to last a week, would continue as long as necessary, Cazeneuve said. Authorities say the camp holds nearly 6,500 migrants, while aid groups put the number at more than 8,300, with more than 1,200 unaccompanied minors among them.
In a breakthrough, Cazeneuve announced late Monday that Britain had agreed to take in unaccompanied minors with family ties in Britain, an important step after months of prodding by France. The humanitarian organization France Terre d’Asile says 1,291 unaccompanied minors live in the camp.
Officials have said that there will be a solution for each migrant, though expulsion may be among them for those who don’t qualify for asylum. Meanwhile, France will spend 25 euros a day on each migrant in the reception centers, according to officials.
The camp, which sprang up 18 months ago, was previously tolerated but given almost no state help. Aid groups, and hundreds of British volunteers, have provided basic necessities. The forced departure of thousands is an enormous task, planned for months, but authorities have had practice. They dismantled the southern half of the camp in March, a chaotic, often brutal, bulldozing operation that drew complaints from human rights groups.
This time, France hopes to restore some pride by closing the camp that has been seen as a national disgrace in a peaceful, humane operation.