CALAIS, France (Reuters) - France moved more than 1,600 child migrants from the site of a demolished camp to reception centers across the country on Wednesday, and said Britain would be giving refuge to several hundred of them.
French authorities transferred more than 5,000 other migrants last week before bulldozers moved in to raze the sprawl of ramshackle shacks and tents nicknamed the “Jungle” by its inhabitants.
But hundreds of unaccompanied children were left behind. They have been sheltered in converted shipping containers on a site on the edge of the flattened camp as France and Britain squabbled over who should take them in.
Many of them teenagers from war-ravaged Afghanistan and Sudan’s Darfur region, they bade farewell to companions and charity workers before boarding awaiting buses.
The children’s plight triggered a diplomatic row between Paris and London, with tensions intensifying in recent days after President Francois Hollande pressed Britain to accept its share of responsibility for the minors.
British officials demanded France take better care of them.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told parliament that Britain had agreed in negotiations to take in “several hundred” of the child migrants. An interior ministry source said these were on top of the more than 300 minors Britain had taken in between Oct. 10 and last week’s operation to dismantle the camp.
“The challenge now is to implement the terms of the agreement we concluded with the British,” Cazeneuve said.
A spokesman for the Pas-de-Calais region said 1,616 children were moved out on Wednesday. Many had been desperate to reach Britain, which lies tantalizingly close across a narrow stretch of sea, saying they have relatives there.
“We don’t want to go to the bus, we want to go to England only. England, no France,” said one Afghan teenager.
European Union rules say Britain must take in unaccompanied children who have family ties. Britain has also made a wider commitment to taking in vulnerable migrant children under the so-called Dubs amendment passed in parliament this year.
David Jones, junior minister in charge of Britain’s exit from the EU, told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that there had been a pause in the process of admitting children while the camp was closed.
“We anticipate that that will recommence later this week,” the minister said.
The United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child criticized both governments for disregarding the child migrants’ best interests.
“Hundreds of children have been subjected to inhumane living conditions,” the committee said in a statement.
Faced with an uncertain future, the child migrants received colored bracelets marked with the number of the bus they would be traveling on but no choice over its destination.
Dozens of British Home (Interior) Office officials, including Border Force staff, were in Calais on Wednesday and will visit the 60 temporary housing centers dedicated to unaccompanied children to assess their asylum requests.
The Calais camp came to symbolize Europe’s fraught efforts to cope with a record influx of migrants fleeing war and poverty in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Hollande this week promised Calais residents the migrants would not return, and on Wednesday the prefect of the Pas-de Calais region said even the container park would be dismantled.
Charity workers criticized the plans to remove the shipping container site.
“We fear many of the adolescents will come back to Calais. How will the state look after them? Will they be left to sleep in the street?,” said Christian Salome, head of the Auberge des Migrants charity.
Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont and Brian Love in Paris, Tom Miles in Geneva and William James in London; Writing by Richard Lough Editing by Jeremy Gaunt