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Paris migrant center is concern for locals

Paris will soon open a new reception center so that migrants don't have to camp out in the city's streets. But local residents fear an already downtrodden area could become even worse. Lisa Louis reports from Paris.

The city will open the new center in the north of Paris by the end of this month. Between 400 and 600 men are expected to be staying there at any one time. They will receive clothes, food, medical and social support. After five to 10 days, they will be transferred to preliminary housing all across France, where they will stay until their asylum application has been processed by French authorities.

Meanwhile, a second reception center for women and children will open in the suburb of Ivry south of Paris early next year.

The mayor's initiative

In France, the state is in charge of taking care of migrants. But this summer, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo lost patience with the government's inability to provide a permanent solution to an issue that has been ongoing for months. She announced the opening of the center in Paris - without the government's official go-ahead.

"For us, it's a question of honour to receive migrants in a dignified way," her deputy Dominique Versini told a group of journalists recently.

"We needed a long-term solution and can't have these vulnerable people live on our streets anymore with the weather getting wetter and colder by the day," she added.

Each day, 50 to 80 migrants have been arriving in the capital since the flow of refugees to Europe accelerated last summer. Thousands have been camping out in different parts of the city. Mostly men from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Sudan. The government has taken down 28 of these makeshift camps over the past year with the migrants - 19,000 in total - being transferred to preliminary housing.

Paris Flüchtlingslager (Mairie de Paris/Jean-Baptiste Gurliat)

The new center near Gare du Nord is only meant to be a temporary abode for migrants

Calais camp closure

The government opposed a first attempt by Hidalgo to open a reception center last year, but has since come on board and accepted her initiative. The state will chip in more than 8 million euros ($8.7 million) over the first year: 20 percent of the initial investment and half of the running costs.

The government has also pledged to provide and pay for 1,200 additional places in preliminary housing each month. They are needed in order to make sure migrants can move on after 10 days. The government has been making available as many places as possible each month over the past year.

The demand for new places could increase now that the Calais "Jungle" camp is being closed and cleared and migrants are moved on to centers around the country.

Versini thinks the new center in Paris could become a flagship facility. "This is the best way to deal with the situation," she said adding that the country needed at least three or four hubs like this one.

More misery

But for some residents in the Porte de la Chapelle area, where the new facility is being set up, the solution is far from ideal. The working class neighborhood is one of the city's poorer areas. It's known for its problems with drug addicts, prostitution, illegal street vendors and taxi drivers and violent youths.Farid Ouahabi, manager of the brasserie Le Pari'Go, says constructing the reception center in this area means adding more misery to a world of misery.

"Did they have to construct this center in our neighborhood?" he asked one afternoon while serving a coffee to a middle-aged man at the bar. "All of my clients are complaining about the plans. We are just fed up with the situation and afraid it'll get even worse," he told DW.

Paris neue Flüchtlingslager (DW/L. Louis)

Local residents, like Farid Ouahabi, are concerned that their neighborhood will become even more desolate than it already is

Across the street from his bar, Fatiha, who doesn't want to give her last name, works at a Creperie. When she finishes work at 10 p.m. she has to walk to her car in an underground car park 200 meters away. "My journey home is already a bit scary and now I am afraid it'll get even scarier - especially as only men will be staying at the center" she told DW.

Many of her female clients were afraid of what's coming - especially for their children, she added. "One client told me her 13- year-old daughter had asked her to pick her up from school every day from now on, as she just does not feel safe."

'Stop being afraid'

Bruno Morel - from the charity Emmaüs Solidarité that will be responsible for operating the reception center - thinks people should stop being afraid of migrants for no reason. They should instead concentrate on the good examples from across the country. "Things have been going really smoothly at all the facilities where the 19,000 migrants have been transferred to from Paris," he told DW, adding that this also showed that France was able to welcome migrants in a decent way.

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"We are creating something truly innovative here in Paris and we should be positive about it."

But local residents say that they had been looking forward to another project for the site, which would have gentrified the area: a new university campus. Construction works at the Concordet Human and Social Sciences University are scheduled to begin in March 2018. Many now fear the project might be delayed or even cancelled.

"There was a glimpse of hope at the end of the tunnel for a positive project for the neighborhood and now it's getting dark again," said Abdelhakim Balit, a librarian working in the area. 

Deputy Mayor Versini thinks the university project will be built on time. "Our reception center will only stay there for 16 months and we are already looking for a new site after that. The facility has been specially conceived for this purpose, in a modular way, so that it can be constructed and deconstructed very easily."

Versini says those opposing the center are a minority. "Most people want to help and are happy that migrants won't be camping out in the streets any more," she said.

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