CALAIS, France (AP) — France began the mass evacuation Monday of the makeshift migrant camp known as "the jungle," a mammoth project to erase the humanitarian blight on its northern border, where thousands fleeing war or poverty have lived in squalor, most hoping to sneak into Britain.
Before dawn broke, long lines of migrants waited in chilly temperatures to board buses in the port city of Calais, carrying meager belongings and timid hope that they were headed to a brighter future, despite giving up their dreams of life across the English Channel in Britain.
Closely watched by more than 1,200 police, the first of dozens of buses began transferring them to reception centers around France where they can apply for asylum. More police patrolled inside the camp, among them officers from the London police force.
Authorities were expected to begin tearing down thousands of muddy tents and fragile shelters on Tuesday as the migrants vacated them.
Migrants have flocked to the Calais region for nearly two decades, living in mini-jungles. But the sprawling camp in the sand dunes of northern France became emblematic of Europe's migrant crisis, expanding as migrant numbers grew and quickly evolving into Europe's largest slum, supported by aid groups, and a black eye on France's image.
"It's not good, the jungle," said 31-year-old Mahmoud Abdrahman of Sudan. "Eating not good. Water not good, shelter not good, no good toilets." He said he would leave Tuesday when lines were shorter, gesturing to a black knapsack that was all packed to go as proof he was ready.
Ultimately, Abdrahman said, he wanted one thing more than anything else.
"I need peace," he said. "Anywhere."
Home to migrants from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and elsewhere, the closing of the camp fell like a stone on many as the reality of the evacuation sunk in and plans had to be made. Uncertainty and a lack of precise information left many fearful.
"What should I do?" asked a 14-year-old newly arrived Afghan.
"It is really hard because we have found some good friends over here," said Tariq Shinwari, a 26-year-old Afghan.
The camp shutdown left some, like Imran Khan, an Afghan who was fingerprinted in another country before coming to France, with a tough choice — get on a bus and risk expulsion or go on the run as winter approaches. Under European rules, asylum seekers must be returned to the country where they were fingerprinted on arrival.
"I will decide tomorrow what to do," the 35-year-old said.
By nightfall on Monday, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said 1,918 people had been processed and sent to 80 centers around France. Another 400 unaccompanied minors were being housed in heated shelters at the camp.
The numbers were lower than the 3,000 expected to be evacuated Monday. The operation, expected to last a week, would continue as long as necessary, Cazeneuve said. "This is an operation we want to be peaceful and under control. So far it is," he said.
Authorities say the camp holds nearly 6,500 migrants, while aid groups put the number at more than 8,300, with more than 1,200 unaccompanied minors among them.
Unaccompanied minors, many with family members in Britain, were to be housed on-site in containers set up earlier this year as their files are studied in London to see if they qualify for a transfer across the English Channel. The humanitarian organization France Terre d'Asile says 1,291 unaccompanied minors live in the camp.
In a breakthrough, Cazeneuve announced late Monday that Britain had agreed to take in unaccompanied minors with family ties in Britain, an important step after months of prodding by France.
Officials have said that there will be a solution for each migrant, though expulsion may be among them for those who don't qualify for asylum. Meanwhile, France will spend 25 euros a day on each migrant in the reception centers, according to officials.
As the day dragged on, a group of Sudanese got tired of waiting and returned to their shelter in the camp, bags slung over their shoulders and laughing. They said they'd try again on Tuesday.
The camp, which sprang up 18 months ago, was previously tolerated but given almost no state help. Aid groups, and hundreds of British volunteers, have provided basic necessities. It devolved into a slum where tensions bubbled, friendships formed and smugglers thrived.
The forced departure of thousands is an enormous task, planned for months, but authorities have had practice. They dismantled the southern half of the camp in March, a chaotic, often brutal, bulldozing operation that drew complaints from human rights groups.
This time, France hopes to restore some pride by closing the camp that has been seen as a national disgrace in a peaceful, humane operation.
Some doubt the camp's dismantling will end the migrant influx into northern France which predates the slum. A 2003 French-British accord effectively put the British border in Calais, stopping migrants there and putting the onus on France to deal with their plight.
While a sense of camaraderie grew inside the camp, so did tensions. Two of the largest communities, Afghans and Sudanese, have clashed in the past and whole sectors of shelters burned down.
Life at night is the toughest. In the dark, migrants invade the roadway, throwing tree branches and other objects into the path of oncoming trucks heading to port ferries to slow traffic enough to hop on the back.
Fourteen migrants have died this year in the Calais area, mostly in hit-and-run accidents.
"I'm three months in the jungle. I feel like I've stayed three years," said Amin, a 32-year-old Sudanese with perfect English — and a brother in Britain.
Amin, who asked not to be further identified because of concerns for his future, lost his best friend in a hit-and-run accident this summer, a man he shared the treacherous journey with to Calais.
"Nobody looked after this case. He's a murderer," Amin said of the driver who struck his friend. "There was no mention in the newspaper that he died."
Amin said he will take a bus tomorrow and seek asylum in France.
"We have tried but we're fed up. France is good," he said.