CALAIS, France — French authorities bused all unaccompanied children — 1,616 of them — out of Calais’ sprawling migrant slum on Wednesday, taking them to special processing centers in one of the final steps to empty the notorious camp in the English Channel city.
The underage migrants climbed into to 38 buses in a day-long operation that began just under a week after adult migrants were cleared out of the camp known as “the jungle” and sent to refugee centers around France.
In the government’s final move, women and their children — slightly more than 300 people — in the Calais camp were to be transported to family centers on Thursday.
“Then there will be no one at the end of the day,” said Steve Barbet, spokesman for the Pas-de-Calais region.
Last week’s operation to evacuate and demolish the makeshift camp — whose population soared to more than 10,000 two months ago, aid groups said — was a mammoth logistical task rushed to completion after fires engulfed large swaths of the slum. Clean-up crews finished pulling down shelters Tuesday.
Two agents from the British Home Office traveled on each bus, said Barbet. They will study files of the underage migrants, who often have family members in the U.K., to see who might qualify for transfer to Britain — the goal of most migrants who used the camp as a stepping stone for bids to sneak across the Channel by hiding out in freight trucks.
Since Oct. 17, Britain has taken in slightly more than 300 Calais migrants. France is pressing Britain to do more.
Most of the youths lined up calmly to board the buses, though one grabbed onto a fence, begging British officials to take him to the U.K.
Migrants from the Mideast and Africa had converged on the Calais camp over the past 18 months. The filthy, lawless site had become a symbol of Europe’s migrant crisis and a source of shame for France.
The child migrants were taken to 60 dedicated centers scattered around France until British officials decide their cases. Those refused access to Britain will be put under the care of French child welfare services.
The operation rekindled tensions among some youths, who feared it means the end of their dream of reaching Britain.
“They are saying ‘you are young, we can help you’. But they are not helping me,” Carlos Osma, a 16-year-old from Sudan, said before boarding a bus.
Four people were injured when clashes broke out Tuesday night between Afghan and Eritrean migrants in the camp, and police used tear gas to separate them.
British Home Secretary Amber Rudd told Parliament last week that several hundred more child migrants would be brought in soon. But details remain unclear. The issue is complicated by Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union, which highlighted the public’s unease with immigration.
“We are absolutely committed to safeguarding and protecting children in Calais and have been working very closely with the French to ensure the camp is cleared as safely as possible,” British Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill said Wednesday.