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Paris Tent Camp Reflects Plight of Europe's Asylum-Seekers

  • Lisa Bryant

FILE - People sit by a tent at a makeshift camp in Calais, northern France, Sept. 7, 2014.

FILE - People sit by a tent at a makeshift camp in Calais, northern France, Sept. 7, 2014.

About a mile from Paris' iconic Montmartre neighborhood is a spot where very few tourists go. It is a busy overpass that shelters a collection of small, dirty tents. The metro rumbles overhead. Trains pass by below.

The residents of this tent camp mostly come from East Africa. Everybody has a different story. But nobody wanted to end up on this bridge, with no toilet, no home and, for now, no future.

Mikias, 24, said he was a student in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, before leaving his country in 2013. He fled "because we have a political war. Like, you know ethnic group Oromo? Well, I'm Oromo."

Mikias said he had applied for asylum in France and had received papers. He is waiting for a final interview — six months from now. Until then, he is stuck in this tent camp.

Prasi, 25, said he was also a student, from Sudan's Darfur region. He said he left because the government had harassed him. He crossed the desert to Libya, "and from Libya, take the boat, and take the Mediterranean. And it was just a small boat and there were a big number of people. And the boat is broken in the middle of the water. And we had to wait [for the coast guard]. ... They took us to the land."

From Italy, Prasi made his way to Paris. "As soon as I arrived here, I claimed asylum," he said. "From appointment to another appointment. Trying to get accommodation, but nothing happens. When you go, they say a lot of people, need to queue [line up], waiting. Need to come again and again. Now, almost going on 1 1/2 years."

Throng of applicants

Rights advocates have heard the stories many times before. After Germany, France hosts Europe's largest number of asylum-seekers, with around 60,000 applicants, and about 40 percent of people applying for asylum in France live in the capital, many of them on the streets.

"That explains [why] there is a huge problem of reception conditions, housing and accommodation for these people," said Jean-Francois Dubost, who is in charge of Amnesty International France's Uprooted People's Program. "And that's why we can find places where they are just living everywhere, in places where there is nothing."

That is not the way it is supposed to be. Under French law, asylum-seekers are entitled to government accommodation while their claims are processed. The European Union also sets basic standards that governments must meet. But for now, France simply does not have enough places to house them.

Pierre Henry, general director of France Terre d'Asile, a nongovernmental organization that helps asylum-seekers in France, said it was unacceptable to have tent camps like the one on the bridge. The nation needs to reorganize its asylum system, he said, and if it's not done soon, France will pay a price.

Eric Lejoindre, mayor of Paris' 18th administrative district, where the tent camp is located, agreed that things must change.

"They come from countries where it's impossible to live," he said of the asylum-seekers. "Up to today, we haven't had problems of violence or theft … but the encampment can't stay. The encampment can't stay because it's not a place to live."

A bill in the French parliament aims to address some of the problems. It would cut in half the time to process asylum applications to about nine months.

"I think it's necessary that France … stays a place where people who seek refuge can find refuge," Lejoindre said. "But everything can't be concentrated around Paris. ... The country as a whole has to be part of the asylum policy. And that's the whole point of the reform which is being passed in parliament."

Amnesty's Dubost said there are positive aspects to the bill. But he is skeptical.

"The whole spirit of the law proposed by the French government is quite oriented in the fight against false refugees," he said. "and that's our great concern. The spirit isn't going the right way."

Barriers in some countries

Rights activists say that's a problem reflected elsewhere in Europe, as the region tries to stem an influx of illegal immigrants. The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR has said it's worried about reports that some EU countries have blocked the entry of or have forcibly returned asylum-seekers and refugees.

"For the EU governments, the refugee situation is just a migration situation, among others, and they use migration control tools to deal with asylum issues, or asylum-seekers," Dubost said.

At the tent camp under the overpass, Prasi said he also had little faith in the political system.

"The politician come on TV, on the radio, talking, talking," he said. "And you believe that, oh, man, now I have a good chance. But there's no chance. Every time, new law, new, new, new. But nothing new for us, just new for them."

So asylum-seekers in France are counting on hope — and a long wait.

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