The first bus carrying refugees from the Calais 'Jungle’ camp in northern France left on Monday.
It is expected it will take three days to dismantle the sprawling camp, one of the biggest in Europe. It is still unclear where the few thousand refugees will go after the Jungle is razed. The squalid living conditions and delays in processing asylum applications have caused the camp to become a symbol of Europe's failure to resolve the worst displacement crisis in its post-war history.
“My fingerprints were taken in Italy and where ever you go in Europe after that they say you have to go back to the Italy under the Dublin regulation,” Mohammed, 23, from Eritrea told The Guardian. “Now they say for the first time the fingerprints don’t matter and we can start applying for asylum again. I am happy.”
Over the past 18 months, the number of refugees has exponentially increased. Police have estimated the camp’s population at 6,400, while aid groups have put the number at 8,100. The camp consists mostly of people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Eritrea.
Flyers distributed by French officials on Sunday instructed the refugees in several languages to gather at a designated warehouse from 0800 local time on Monday. At the warehouse or other processing points, the displaced population will be given two options: seek asylum in France or return to the country of origin.
— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) October 24, 2016
They will be separated into four groups— for families, single men, unaccompanied minors, and other people considered vulnerable—before boarding one of 60 buses which will take them to nearly 300 shelters nationwide.
The first busload carrying 50 Sudanese left at about 0845 local time (0645 GMT), heading for the Burgundy region of east-central France.
"I feel very happy, I've had enough of the Jungle," said 25-year-old Abbas from Sudan, who was bundled up in a woolly hat and coat against the cold.
"There are a lot of people who don't want to leave. There might be problems later. That's why I came out first," he added.
Dozens of riot police vehicles and other trucks carrying equipment had earlier set off in the direction of the operation centre, an AFP correspondent saw.
While calm prevailed on Monday, 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.
France's government has billed the enormous operation to clear the camp as "humanitarian". In September, French President Francois Hollande said conditions in the Calais camp are "not acceptable ... especially for those who fled war to get there.”
The closure of the camp is also aimed at relieving tensions in the Calais area, where clashes between police and refugees trying to climb onto trucks heading to Britain are an almost nightly occurrence.
Around 1,250 police and security officials have been mobilised in order to ensure the smooth roll-out of the operation.
This is a developing story and will be updated accordingly.