CALAIS, France — The migrants, mostly young men from Africa or Afghanistan, strode out of the squalid camp at a rapid pace, not looking behind them.
Hundreds of them lined up in the cold for buses to take them to temporary housing all over France, as the government set in motion on Monday its plan to clear the sprawling migrant camp known as the “Jungle” once and for all.
For migrants all over Europe, Calais was the staging point to Britain’s presumed jobs-and-wealth Eldorado. For France’s government, the camp was a political and humanitarian disaster.
The concentration of migrants had repeatedly disrupted traffic in and out of the Channel Tunnel linking France and Britain as they tried to smuggle themselves on trucks.
But until this week, the French government had largely ignored the camp, leaving the migrants’ care mostly in the hands of benevolent associations. That neglect was no longer possible.
About 3,000 migrants were bused to new shelters across France on Monday.
Streams of migrants from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan and other conflict-torn countries walked down the camp’s trash-filled, muddy lanes in small groups, pushing or dragging donated suitcases or toting knapsacks front and back. One Afghan banged a drum, another carried a giant cricket bat, a third a guitar.
Some had suitcases on their heads; others simply walked out of the camp empty-handed, bundled up against the cold. Hundreds of journalists watched the operation.
The squalid camp, growing and festering for over a year, has become a symbol of Europe’s faltering efforts to handle its migration crisis.
At its recent peak, up to 10,000 lived there in shivering misery, and as many as 100 arrived each day after arduous journeys by foot, boat, truck, and clandestine train rides across continents and seas. Before Monday’s operation, the population was 6,000 to 8,000.
Judging by the crowds on Monday, many of the migrants appeared set to shed their dreams of Britain and were as anxious to be rid of the camp as the government was. On Tuesday, French officials plan to start demolishing and clearing its flimsy shacks, fields of tents, and piles of trash spread over 1.5 square miles.
While the clearing of the camp was peaceful, the police warned that they were expecting some resistance from activist groups, if not from the migrants themselves, when the demolition begins on Tuesday.
“The Jungle is no good,” said Abdullah Umar, 24, who is from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region and hoped to apply for asylum in France. He was waiting in line on the road. “There are problems. Sometimes there’s fighting. And it’s cold.”
Umar added: “France is a good country. People from France gave me all these clothes.” He pointed to his new suitcase, which looked full.
Hassan Jibril, 35, another Sudanese man, trying to keep warm in the warren of tents, said, “We are ready to leave.”
He was wearing flip-flops in the 40-degree chill and heating some pots over an outdoor fire. “It is a very bad situation here,” he said. “You see that?” he said, pointing to a trash-filled puddle next to his tent. “If you stay here, you can die.”
Awaiting the migrants was a complicated plan, fine-tuned by French officials since late summer, to disperse them in waves of bus journeys to dozens of towns and villages all over France.
Sixty buses were to take 50 migrants each on the first day, 45 buses on Tuesday and 40 on Wednesday; each migrant will be given a choice between two French regions. (The Île-de-France region, which includes Paris, and the island of Corsica are not among the options.)
Some of the towns hosting these 451 reception centers — abandoned barracks, hospitals, disused government vacation camps — have been demonstrating against their arrival in recent weeks; but the migrants do not know that.
The French government, anxious to deflect criticism from charities over the destruction of the camp, calls its plan a “humanitarian intervention,” insisting it is moving forward for the migrants’ own good.
“The immense majority of migrants present at Calais are eligible for international protection,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement. It described their sojourn in the reception centers as a “respite” allowing them to “serenely envisage a request for asylum in France.” Some, however, will not be granted asylum and will be expelled.
A Sudanese man waiting in the line to be processed on Monday seemed resigned.
“This Jungle, you have got to make a solution. Now, the border is closed,” said Ahmed Adam, 24, a plastics factory worker from Khartoum, Sudan, referring to Britain’s determination to block the migrants. “France is safety,” he said. “Khartoum is not safety.”