Paris calls for urgent help to house city’s 2,000 canal migrants

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo says the French government needs to urgently find shelter for more than 2,000 migrants setting up makeshift camps alongside the city's canals, calling the situation "unacceptable". It may worsen as warmer weather approaches.

Paris calls for urgent help to house city's 2,000 canal migrants
Photo: AFP

President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to centralise France's response to an influx of migrants in recent years as part of a new immigration bill being debated in parliament this week.

A migrant camp, mainly home to Afghans, has been spreading along the Canal Saint-Martin in recent months, and has now swelled to some 800 people.

Another 1,500 people, mostly Eritreans and Sudanese, have converged under an overpass on the Canal St Denis further to the north.

And the arrival of warmer weather could quickly swell their ranks, as seen at previous camps that have been dismantled in the capital in recent years.

READ ALSO: No seasonal cheer for migrants in tents along Paris canal

“If nothing is done, in two weeks there will be 3,000,” Hidalgo told AFP, adding that she had asked the central government to find shelter but had so
far “not had a response”.

The greater Paris region currently has room to shelter just 750 migrants, many of whom hope for refugee status but may be facing expulsion under Macron's tougher approach.

Some have arrived in Paris from the northern port of Calais, where migrants have flocked for years hoping to stow away on trucks to Britain.

Officials in the area have deployed a heavy police presence to ensure that no more camps like the huge “Jungle” site that was razed in 2016 are set up.

The Local spoke to migrants at the Canal Saint Martin at Christmas time. Many were teenagers and had imagined something very different when they had imagined France.

“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. 

On Wednesday, UN human rights experts deplored an “inhumane situation” in Calais and elsewhere in northern France, urging the government to provide
water and emergency shelters.

“We are concerned about increasingly regressive migration policies and the inhumane and substandard conditions suffered by migrants,” the UN's special
rapporteur on migrant rights, Felipe Gonzalez Morales, said in a statement from Geneva.

The government's draft law criminalises illegal border crossings and speeds up procedures to deport economic migrants, while offering faster asylum

But several NGOs and other critics say the new laws will lead to thousands of deportations, and the government has already abandoned a proposal to deport
failed asylum-seekers to third countries deemed “safe”.

France received a record 100,000 asylum applications last year and offered refugee status to around 30,000 people, official figures show. Forced
expulsions numbered 14,900.

“We're lying to the French by saying this is a temporary crisis that we'll fix with an immigration law,” Hidalgo said.

“Let's be practical: Find shelter for the people sleeping in the camps, and then we can look at their situations,” she said.


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.