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Almost 2,000 migrants leave France's Calais refugee camp in first day of evacuation

Thousands of refugees are set to be evacuated to 'reception centres' dotted across France
Refugees waited in line on Monday morning to board buses bound for reception centres across France (Reuters)

Almost 2,000 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 migrants and refugees had holed up, desperate to sneak into Britain.

A total of 2,318 migrants were "taken to shelter" on the first day of the operation, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said. 

Of those, 1,918 left Calais on buses for 80 reception centres elsewhere in France and 400 minors were taken to "provisional reception centres" within the camp ahead of their transfer elsewhere, he said. 

Around 1,200 police officers - some in riot gear - were on hand, as the authorities feared clashes with activists attempting to protect the camp, after violent confrontations between camp advocates and French security operatives in the last few days.

Police at one point intervened to break up a scuffle but Cazeneuve said the operation proceeded in a generally "calm and orderly manner". 

"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.

Despite the peaceful evacuation of the camp, charity workers told Reuters that hundreds will try and stay and warned that 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.

A 25-year-old Sudanese man, Abbas, told AFP he was upbeat about leaving the insalubrious camp that has served as a launchpad for attempts to reach Britain.

"I feel very happy, I've had enough of the Jungle," he said. "I wanted to go to the UK, but I have given up on that now."

But Hammoudi, a 22-year-old from the devastated Syrian city of Aleppo, told AFP: "My dream is ruined."

"My hope was to be able to reach the UK, where I believe we as refugees would be better treated. But all of that is over," said Hammoudi, whose cousin was killed in a bombing in Aleppo in July. 

Even with the evacuation taking place, both French and British officials are still discussing the fate of 1,300 unaccompanied child refugees.

French officials on Monday told Reuters that the negotiations about unaccompanied child refugees were still ongoing, with officials from both sides of the channel still deciding on who will take the children with no familial ties in Britain.

Britain has taken in nearly 200 child refugees from the Jungle in the past week and is expected to take dozens more.

The move to evict the 6,500 refugees came after came after months of planning by the French government to demolish the camp.  

The French government said it planned to close the camp on humanitarian grounds and send the refugees to 450 centres dotted around France.

Many of the refugees who had fled war and poverty came from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea.

The camp which housed thousands of refugees grew to symbolise Europe’s inability to address the migrant crisis.

Migrants and refugees being evacuated from the camp will be separated into families, adults, unaccompanied minors and vulnerable individuals, including the elderly and women.  

The refugees are expected to receive medical checkups on their arrival at the “reception centres".

The far-right National Front has criticised the French government’s latest move, describing the planned relocation of refugee as creating “mini refugee camps” across France. 

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