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PARIS – Paris authorities on Friday cleared out some 3,850 migrants from Sudan, Ethiopia and other countries who had been living on city sidewalks in a makeshift camp that had mushroomed into a new embarrassment to France.
Carrying their meager belongings, the migrants boarded dozens of buses to temporary shelters around the Paris region, where they can apply for asylum and get medical care. The operation focusing on the canals of northeast Paris began before dawn Friday and went calmly under the stern watch of riot police.
In the past few weeks, the site had become the biggest migrant camp Paris had seen in years. It posed a new challenge just as the French government was shutting down a filthy migrant camp in the northern port city of Calais that had become a painful symbol of Europe's migrant crisis.
Thousands of Calais migrants were transferred to temporary reception centers, but some had fled to Paris. Pitching tents on boulevards near the Stalingrad subway station, they joined migrants who had arrived here from elsewhere after dangerous sea crossings from the Mideast and Africa.
"This is the biggest operation sheltering migrants we have had to face in the last 18 months," said Christine Gauthier of the Paris region's housing department.
The Paris regional administration said 3,852 people were taken to 78 temporary centers in Friday's operation. Among them, 339 migrants were identified as "vulnerable," including women, children and the ailing, and they were given special care.
"I don't know where we are going," said Odam Husein, a 23-year-old from southern Sudan, as he waited to board a bus with a small plastic bag of clothing and papers. Like many of the migrants around him, Husein said he's afraid of routine police raids, tired of sleeping on the street and confused about whether he has the right to asylum in France.
Two men sitting on a soggy mattress next to him said they had come from Calais hoping for more opportunity in Paris, but haven't found any.
Employees at a nearby bakery, cafe and other businesses had complained that the migrant camps were scaring away customers, but other residents expressed concern about destitute people sleeping out in the cold rain amid the relative wealth of the French capital.
President Francois Hollande had vowed to clear out the Paris camp, saying France can no longer accept such migrant settlements. But it's unclear whether the government can prevent new camps from surfacing, especially as Europe's migrant crisis persists.
While the latest camp was the biggest yet, it's hardly the first. Regional authorities have evacuated more than 21,000 migrants in 30 such operations since June 2015.
Paris is slated to open a new refugee center soon but aid groups say its capacity is far too small to meet the demand.
Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed.