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French towns divided over taking in Calais migrants

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French towns divided over taking in Calais migrants
Photo: AFP
17:22 CEST+02:00
France plans to move the 10,000 migrants camped out in Calais to centres around the country but while many will be welcomed in towns and villages, some local mayors are refusing to open their doors.

The French president François Hollande has vowed to tear down the infamous “Jungle” camp of Calais by the end of the year.

He has finally bowed to pressure to find a solution to the squalid camp that has ballooned in size in recent months and is now home to some 10,000 migrants.

Hollande and his government's solution is to rehouse the migrants in 164 official reception centres around France “before winter”.

But the chances of his plan B being a success may depend on the welcome these migrants receive in the small towns that will become their new homes.

Plans to relocate the Calais migrants have sparked controversy and protests, with residents in some parts of the country vehemently opposed to taking them in.

Several hundred people demonstrated at the weekend in Versailles, west of Paris, against plans to move a group of migrants there.

Many local mayors accept they have to show solidarity with Calais and open their doors to asylum seekers.

One of those towns is Bohain-en-Vermandois in northern France.

Bulging Calais camp now home to '9,000 refugees'

“We have a duty of solidarity with Calais and a humanitarian duty,” said the town's mayor Jean-Louis Bricout, who recently announced plans to accommodate refugees in two buildings.

The town had made it clear back in 2015 that it was willing to accept refugees, but despite the huge numbers in Calais, none were sent their way.

Another town willing to take in refugees is Hirson, also in northern France.

Wary of opposition from a number of locals the mayor Jean-Jacques Thomas invited the head of the local hospital's emergency ward to a council meeting to help tackle some of the misconceptions around refugees. The hospital manager was a Syrian national.

“He hasn't raped or killed anyone,” said the mayor. “In fact he has helped save the lives of several people.”

Following his appearance the council voted to welcome six young Afghan refugees.

The mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppé, who is the favourite to become the centre-right nominee for next year's presidential elections, has agreed to look around his city for potential lodgings for asylum seekers.

But not everywhere in France is willing to take in refugees while their requests for asylum are processed.

In Ares, a town near Juppé's Bordeaux, the mayor held a council meeting on Friday which saw the locally elected officials vote against welcoming any migrants or asylum seekers in town.

It was a symbolic vote because the local prefect will have the final decision on whether the town welcomes the migrants.

According to a report in 20 Minutes newspaper, many of the locals seemed to agree with the council's decision.

“It's a question of security for my children. It's peaceful here and I don't want it to change,” one mother named Laura told the newspaper.

“It's not a question of racism, it's just scary when we see what has happened in Calais. Sometimes you just have to take extreme decisions,” she added.

Other locals spoke of being willing to accept families with women and children, but not single men.

“What are they going to do all day?” said one elderly resident.

While it's clear the French government faces a stern test to convince towns around France to help relieve the pressure on Calais, it also faces another challenge: making sure the refugees and migrants stay where they are housed.

Aid groups working in Calais say so many of those refugees who have already been sent to the four corners of France simply end up returning.

Anne-Lise Coury, head of operations for Medecins sans Frontieres in Calais told The Local recently that in principle the idea of spreading out the migrants in asylum centres around the country is the right one, but the lack of resources or support means they often end up back in Calais.

“They find themselves in a department of France where there are no real translators. They can end up far from a town and the administrative offices they need,” said Coury.

“They may be also far from places where they can learn French or far from members of their community,” she added. “And they end up just deciding to go back to Calais.”

The government is staking a great deal on its plan and with presidential and parliamentary elections around the corner it is running out of time to make it work.

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