No Christmas cheer for migrants in tents on banks of Paris canal

Spending Christmas by the canal in the trendy 10th arrondissement of Paris might sound romantic, but there is little romance for migrants like Omar, Jahan or teenager Khater who live in damp tents by the water’s edge.

No Christmas cheer for migrants in tents on banks of Paris canal
This 15-year-old Afghan lives in a tent by the Canal Saint-Martin

“Teachers in school taught us about France and what a wonderful place it was,” said Khater, who said he was 15 years old, as he stood by the dozens of tents strung along the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin that now serve as home for hundreds of migrants.

“I didn’t think it would be like this,” he said, surveying the squalid scene along the canal, whose banks in summer host hundreds of trendy youngsters drinking beer or wine late into the night. 
Khater, like the other migrants mostly from Afghanistan that The Local spoke to, said he had been given an appointment in a government office to apply for asylum in several weeks’ time.
Migrants' tents on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin
That means he will be on the streets until at least the date of the appointment, and possibly even after it.
They will spend Christmas Day like they spend most other days, hoping it won’t rain, trying to keep warm and dry, and waiting for local charities to provide a hot meal.
They care little for Christmas, as most of the migrants there are Muslims.
But the sight of hundreds of migrants living rough along the canal, or further north at Porte de la Chapelle where a migrant processing centre is based, will do little to boost Christmas cheer in the French capital.
The numbers living on the streets in Paris has started to grow again.

The tents are scattered along the canal from near Jaurès metro station 
When the mini tent cities start to grow big, police move in to demolish them, with city officials following close behind to offer temporary accommodation.
But many migrants quickly return to the streets, and along with new arrivals the shantytowns build up again.
The peak was in autumn 2016, when several thousand migrants from war-torn or poverty stricken countries lived on the streets of Paris.
That surge prompted city authorities to open a 400-bed centre at Porte de la Chapelle, where single men can get temporary refuge for up to 10 days, with families, women and unaccompanied minors being redirected to other government-sponsored housing.
But the system still leaves hundreds and at times thousands on the streets. 
Police are under orders to stop tent cities forming, and are accused by migrants and charity workers of confiscating or destroying tents and sleeping bags.
Critics ask why France appears to be failing refugees that end up here when Germany has been able to handle more than a million migrants since 2015, with few if any of them having to live in the squalor seen on Paris streets or at the notorious Calais “Jungle” that was finally shut down just over a year ago. 
Queue at a government office near the canal where migrants get initial asylum interviews. All photos by Rory Mulholland.
Last year, 85,700 applied for asylum in France.
In June, the newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron said: “We have to welcome refugees, it's our duty and our honour.”
But since then his opponents have repeatedly highlighted what they say is the glaring discrepancy between what Macron has said and what he is doing on the issue.
This week, his government’s plans to expel more failed asylum seekers, and draw up a tough new bill on immigration, prompted fury among rights groups.
Back on the Canal Saint-Martin, such matters are of no immediate concern for Jahan and the fellow Afghan he shares his two-man tent with. Their priority is to keep dry over the Christmas holiday period, which is forecast to be mild but rainy.
“Look,” the 23-year-old said, as the pair draped a survival blanket over their tent as an extra layer to keep the rain out and the heat in, “everything is soaking – my shoes, my jeans, my jacket.”
by Rory Mulholland


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.