Syrian refugees set up home in Paris park

Around 150 Syria refugees are living a desperate existence in a small park to the north of Paris. NGOs and France's Green party are urging authorities to do more to help the families while they wait for their asylum requests to be processed.

Syrian refugees set up home in Paris park
Syrian refugees children and women sit on April 21, 2014 in the Edouard Vaillant parc in Saint-Ouen, north of Paris. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP

They ended up there penniless after wandering from country to country for months.

Yahya, Aziz and 150 other Syrians swapped the brutality and death of a war zone for hand-to-mouth survival in a small park in a working-class suburb of Paris, squeezed in behind a hotel just a few metres away from a busy ring road.

Some come from Homs, others from Aleppo or the Syrian port city of Latakia, leaving behind the violence of a three-year conflict that has now claimed more than 150,000 lives and forced around half the population to flee their homes.

"We stay here all day. At night, some manage to get hotel rooms paid for, others sleep in cars or at the mosque," says Yahya, a former dental technician from the central city of Homs who speaks French fluently, pointing to refugees lying down on mattresses in the park in Saint-Ouen.

The 44-year-old, who refuses to give his surname, "abandoned everything" along with his wife and children after Syria erupted into violence in 2011, leaving behind a pretty villa and relinquishing any hope of returning.

Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt, back to Algeria, Morocco, Spain and finally France: "We knocked on every door," he says, grey hair cut short, black jumper worn out.

It's a similar story for Aziz, 54, who left Syria at the end of 2012 with his six children and wife.

The family criss-crossed Europe before ending up in the park, which has become his "headquarters."

"I also lived in Homs, in the Baba Amr neighbourhood (a rebel area besieged by the army). Everything has been destroyed there," Aziz says.

During their first few weeks in France, the family slept in a hotel. But for several days now, they have been camping out in a car.

Millions of desperate refugees 

Yahya and Aziz are but drops in the ocean of Syrians fleeing their ravaged country.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 2.6 million Syrians have registered as refugees in neighbouring countries in the Middle East, many of them in tiny Lebanon which is staggering under the weight of the crisis.

By contrast, Amnesty International said late last year that just 55,000 Syrian refugees had managed to get to what it called "Fortress Europe" and claim asylum in the EU, many heading for Germany or Sweden.

For its part, France has taken in around 3,000 Syrian refugees since the beginning of the conflict.

In Saint-Ouen, residents and activists have come to the help of Yahya, Aziz and the others, raising funds to pay for hotel rooms and collecting clothes and medicine.

"They're living day-to-day, in diabolical conditions. They have a few blankets, that's all," says Khadija Bouehetta, a local resident.

The first Syrians arrived at the park in January but, as word spread and temperatures grew more mild, their numbers have grown since the start of April.

Local officials said they would send a team to the site this week to help them put together asylum requests, needed to try to get the refugees basic services such as housing and health care.

In the meantime, volunteers have set up a table not far from the refugees where they serve food. A line forms, women and children first.

"We bring them food every day. Today it's couscous," says Bouehetta, who worries about the sanitary conditions on the square, "especially for the children."

Among the refugees, several have health problems, including Nawal Alsafar who suffers from a skin disease and whose two-year-old son, born without hands, is feverish.

"I arrived a few days ago, I don't know anyone," the mother says via an interpreter.

Last week three pregnant women were taken to hospital following a visit to the square by a doctor.

NGOs and France's Green party are urging authorities to do more to help the families while they wait for their asylum requests to be processed.

So far their appeals have fallen on deaf ears but Yahya says he still has hope.

"We must start again from scratch, we lost everything. But we Syrians work hard. I have confidence in France."

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.