France struggles to deal with asylum seekers | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 19.09.2015
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France struggles to deal with asylum seekers

Even as France has promised to take in around 25,000 refugees over the next two years, the country is creaking under the burden of dealing with housing space and swift processing. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.

On a blustery morning, 18-year-old Ahmed from Sudan waited to be bussed to an uncertain future, as authorities dismantled his only home - a scruffy tent camp in downtown Paris, abutting the Seine River.

A few kilometers further north, Nasrullah Daulatzia from Kabul chatted with fellow Afghans at a defunct high school, now occupied by hundreds of migrants from Africa and Asia. Piles of garbage and clothes litter the premises. But he is grateful for a warm bed. "It's great - better than sleeping outside," Daulatzia, who spent months in parks and train stations, told DW.

As France welcomes its first batch of weary Syrians and Iraqis from Germany - out of some 24,000 asylum seekers it vows to take in over the next two years - questions are mounting over the status and treatment of longer-term migrants, who have waited weeks, if not months for shelter.

While some are economic migrants, others have fled conflict and repression in countries like Eritrea and Sudan. But their fate has not earned the same media or political attention as the wave of people now moving through Europe.

"They're establishing quotas for Syrians and Iraqis because these are countries at war," says Hervé Ouzzane, who is part of a citizens' group supporting the migrants squatting in the former Jean Quarré high school in northeastern Paris. "But they never talk about Sudanese quotas or Eritrean quotas. I'm outraged."

empty school copyright: E. Bryant

France is already struggling to deal with those migrants and refugees already in the country

Finding shelter for asylum seekers

For now, mandatory quotas to resettle asylum seekers remains elusive in a deeply divided Europe Union. But in France, which like Germany backs the quota proposal, authorities are scrambling to find space to house tens of thousands of newcomers due to arrive from other EU countries.

"The state and city will mobilise all possible means and space to best welcome all of them," said Mathias Vicherat, chief of staff for Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who arrived for the eviction of the riverside migrant camp - one of two that took place on Thursday. Those evicted, he said, will be sheltered temporarily, while their situation is reviewed.

France has long faced a dearth of space to shelter the swelling numbers of asylum seekers. But the spectre of thousands more coming here in the coming months appears to be driving change.

In Paris, city authorities announced recently that roughly a dozen new centres will open to accommodate some of the latest newcomers crossing Europe, along with hundreds of more established migrants. And the French government is offering cities and towns across the country 1,000 euros ($1,140) for each new housing spot they provide.

The speedy action has drawn mixed reviews from migrant rights activists. "We heard surprisingly that they could find 1,000 places in a few days, while we have been looking for places for many years," said Aurélie Radisson of Secours Catholique, one of several charities monitoring Thursday's eviction. "The European situation has forced our government to change its position and try to find a solution."

New arrivals

In the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise, hundreds of newly arrived Iraqis and Syrians are now staying at a quiet recreational centre where they have been issued temporary papers, undergone medical checks and are beginning French lessons.

For Leila Karaa and her husband Fadel Adafai, from the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala, it is the end of a long road.

"We escaped the danger of IS," said Karaa of "Islamic State" militants, as her husband Fadel Adafai sat nearby sketching a picture of the French flag.

Like many others, the couple described a perilous journey with their three children by foot, rubber dinghy, train and bus to reach safety. After nearly sinking twice in the Mediterranean, they hid in a field for three days in Hungary, as police rounded up migrants.

"They insulted people. They hit them with electric sticks. Hit and kicked them," Karaa told DW, speaking through a translator.

When the family arrived in France by overnight bus from Munich, a woman hugged them. "People show us great humanity here," Karaa said. “We're grateful for France.”

Another welcome

Meanwhile, at Jean Quarré high school, Afghan asylum seeker Daulatzia described a different welcome. After six years as an illegal immigrant in London, he was deported home to Afghanistan, he said. He left the country a few months later, after allegedly being attacked at his home in Kabul.

man talking copyright: E. Bryant

Daulatzia's journey to France has been an arduous one

"Men jumped on me and stabbed me with a knife," he said, showing a deep scar on his stomach. "That's why I run from the hospital and come back here. I've been sleeping outside until I came here."

Activist Ouzzane claims the school's roughly 500 squatters are mostly political refugees. They took over the high school in July, after several evictions. Today, Ouzzane dismisses as insufficient plans by Paris authorities to turn the school into a temporary shelter.

"It's supposed to be an emergency shelter for just 80 immigrants and 80 homeless people from Paris," he said. "That leaves us with 400 migrants we have to take care of."

But Vicherat, of Paris city hall, denies a two-tier treatment of migrants. "The city wants everybody to be treated, but there are priority lines," he said. "Obviously there are different emergencies that will be treated differently - based, for example, on whether people are political war refugees and have lived in particularly traumatic circumstances."

Nearby, migrants from the riverside camp loaded their backpacks and suitcases onto a waiting bus. A few wandered through the line of blue tents, collecting final belongings. Pigeons pecked at stray orange peels and plastic cups.

Ahmed, the migrant from Sudan, had lived there ever since arriving in France last year. "It was so difficult, but we didn't have any choice," he told DW.

Asked where the bus was heading, he shrugged. "Actually, we don't know," he said.

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