More than 2,300 migrants have left the Calais 'Jungle' peacefully on the first day of a French resettlement plan. The notorious camp is to be demolished later this week, as DW's Teri Schultz reports.
Saif Ullah watches the hundreds of people lining up in front of him and vows never to be one of them, willing to take the French government's arm-twisting offer to move from a muddy camp in Calais to holding centers in other parts of the country.
The 21-year-old Pakistani, who left home two-and-a-half years ago bound for Britain, says he doesn't believe the departing camp occupants will remain in the holding centers either.
"You see all these people?" he says, waving at the hordes of young men jostling each other as they wait outside the airplane hangar where they'll be processed. "Everyone wants to go to London."
Those men hanging back in the camp, away from the bus lines, gave the same answer time after time: "I'm going to the UK."
This, despite the fact the British government has made clear they don't want to take in more than a fraction of even the roughly 1,300 unaccompanied minors who can prove they have relatives there prepared to care for them. Those tentative plans are unclear too due a continuing political tussle between the French and British governments.
The registration of minors was halted around midday Monday; most of the kids will have to stay in the jungle for now, in converted shipping containers. The charity "Help Refugees" reports that 49 of those are under the age of 13, and all of them eligible for resettlement in the UK.
Getting on the bus
But whether or not they were genuinely happy to be given transferred to Burgundy in this first wave, thousands of camp inhabitants were willing to do that rather than face the more unpleasant uncertainty of staying in the sprawling slum which is due to start being physically demolished Tuesday morning. Most of them were Sudanese, Ethiopian and Eritrean, with some Afghans also joining the queue.
The "Calais Jungle" has been a hugely controversial issue in French, British and European politics ever since it sprang up in the northeastern part of this French coastal town in the late 90s, swelling to as many 10,000 inhabitants this year. Migrants mainly have come from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Sudan, hoping to either be smuggled or sneak into the UK across the English Channel.
Their self-made holding point has become a city of sorts, with ethnic restaurants and shops of other kinds among the hodgepodge of tents, corrugated tin shanties and shacks reinforced with repurposed planks of wood. But while these desperate people call it home, the 'Jungle's' existence has stigmatized Calais, as well as draining the town's resources.
That's why French President Francois Hollande decided in recent weeks it must be permanently removed. Part of the camp was already torn down earlier this year; former president Nicolas Sarkozy destroyed a previous incarnation in 2009.
UK response an 'international scandal'
French lawmaker Yann Capet, who represents Calais in the federal parliament, was on hand on Monday to assess the situation and was clearly relieved at the relative lack of chaos. Asked how to handle the thousands of people who won't agree to leave and those who don't want to stay in France, Capet says it's necessary to try to "convince, convince, convince, convince" them all that this is their best option to live in decent conditions. He said the makeshift camp would never offer them a life of dignity and wasn't fair to the residents of Calais either.
But Capet points out that demolishing the camp is only a short-term solution for an eyesore, not a way to manage the problem of men, women and children flooding to northern France trying to find safety or a better life. That, the parliamentarian emphasized, requires an effective migration plan at the European level as well as globally to "stop the atrocities taking place, for example, in Syria."
But the parliamentarian saved his real ire for France's neighbor across the channel. "The UK has not done enough" to help resolve the situation, Capet said, calling it an "international scandal" that "we have unaccompanied minors and sometimes even young children who have family on the other side of the channel" who can take care of them, but Britain is either unwilling or dragging its feet on issuing visas.
Where do they go now?
Samuel Hanryon of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) joined in the finger pointing across the channel, saying the British government only agreed to "fast track" some youth visas because their predicament has gotten so much media attention, making the issue what he calls "communication petrol." This small number was "able to make their way only after months of waiting in the muddy camp of Calais and this is definitely no place for kids," Hanryon said. And the long waiting period and uncertain outcomes mean that, "you still have some kids who are continuing trying to get on a truck clandestinely," he said.
Hanryon acknowledges the quandary of French authorities: that the camp is not a humane way for people to live and provides an unwanted pull factor for more migrants and refugees but that its demolition solves nothing either. He says MSF is ramping up its fleet of mobile clinics as camp residents are dispersed, to help them remain healthy wherever they end up.
Saif Ullah is so determined his final destination will be London that, as others boarded the bus for Burgundy, he admitted he was secretly planning his 22nd attempt across the channel.