In his first six months as president, Macron stressed that France was a land of welcome for refugees, saying he wanted all of them off the streets by the end of 2017. But in January 2018 hundreds of refugees are still sleeping rough in Paris
In July 2017 a freshly elected Emmanuel Macron said he wanted refugees “off the streets, out of the woods” by the end of the year.On the campaign trail he highlighted France’s honour in welcoming refugees. But six months later in Porte de la Chapelle in the northeast of Paris, under bridges and underpasses and all along Avenue President Wilson, small groups of refugees are sheltering from the rain and the cold. Three friends from Afghanistan huddled around a fire, a Yemeni engineer from Sanaa who’d been on the streets of Paris for a month, and a student from Sudan who was hoping to make his way to England. Around 1,000 refugees are still living on the streets of Paris, says Médécins sans Frontières (MSF).
Aziz from Yemen wept as he talked about his family in Sanaa as the traffic from the Paris ring-road roared overhead. He wants to rejoin the Yemeni community in London but he was sent back to Paris from Calais and he despairs of ever making it to the UK. In the short-term he wants a night under a dry roof – away from the piss-stained mattresses, the rats and the rain. “Every day I go to the shelter,” he said, referring to “La Bulle”, Paris’s official refugee centre in Porte de la Chapelle, “but every day they say to me ‘come back tomorrow’”.
Until August 2017 the area near “La Bulle” had been home to a makeshift camp of some 2,700 refugees. When the camp was dismantled for the 35th time in the summer, some 2,000 of the migrants were bussed to temporary shelters, but the others are now scattered in small groups throughout northeast Paris.
“Macron has done a good job of making the problem invisible,” said Alberto Bialla, a lanky Italian post-doc student who works for Solidarithé, a volunteer group providing coffee, blankets and information, gesturing to where the makeshift camp used to be.
“The camp is gone. The streets are clean. But they are just hiding in small groups, dispersed through the north of the city.”
“There are just as many people coming to us as before,” he said on a rainy Tuesday evening in the neighbourhood. “Sometimes we have 60 people – sometimes 400. The quality of life for the migrants has just got worse since the area got cleaned up.”
Police have been given orders not to let refugees settle anywhere. MSF’s chief of mission Corinne Torre told FRANCE 24 stories of refugees’ tents being slashed and their sleeping bags and blankets being stolen – anything to stop them sleeping on the streets. “It’s freezing – its winter and their health problems are getting worse,” she said. Noor, 28, from Sudan, who’d been sleeping by the canal in Jaurès, had woken to police drenching his possessions with water guns that morning. As he drank coffee and shared information with friends, he was hoping to get a blanket for the freezing night ahead.
REFUGEES SLEEPING ROUGH IN PARIS
“Does Macron know what the police are doing?” asked Anne-Marie Bredin of Solidarithé Migrants Wilson. “Sometimes the police spray the blankets and sleeping bags that we buy for them with tear gas. You don’t have to do that. They move them on – but where are they supposed to go?”
“They pretend that they’re taking everyone in and saying France is a terre d’accueil (land of welcome) and then in reality they’re doing inhumane things to people,” she added.
“Physically it’s unwelcoming; there’s no food, no toilets, no blankets, no place to sleep. Worse than that – even if they sleep on the street they’re continually prodded – stand up stand up!! So they sleep standing up – so that’s torture and then the bureaucracy to get to the prefecture and to make a request for asylum is very complicated.”
Political refugees and economic migrants
Macron’s government makes a clear distinction between political refugees and economic migrants, vowing to expedite asylum requests for legitimate political prisoners while accelerating expulsions of economic migrants.
Interior Minister Gérard Collomb told local charities in early December that immigration officers would visit emergency shelters and review the paperwork of the people living there, a move which sparked outrage.
French migrant charity Cimade said the move infringes peoples’ basic human rights and NGOs are concerned this will deter migrants from seeking shelter out of fear of being sent home. “We don’t know what’s going on in the shelters anymore,” Torre told FRANCE 24. “This could just be an opportunity to round people up and deport them.”
Collomb defended the move in an interview with RTL radio in December. “We don’t know who’s in these centres,” he said. “We estimate a third of them are political prisoners … two thirds are economic migrants.”
France is expected to debate a tougher bill on asylum and immigration in early 2018. Bredin says she’s apprehensive but that the government needs to give a clear message. “People have risked their lives to come here,” she said. “We can’t take everyone – France has its own share of problems, including homelessness … but even if it’s a hard policy, it needs to be clear.”
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