‘At least there are no bombs’: Concerns grow as Paris canal migrant camps swell

Migrants camped along the Canal Saint Martin in Paris told The Local of the squalid conditions they are living in as aid groups called on authorities to address ever-worsening situation, which they say will lead to security and health risks.

'At least there are no bombs': Concerns grow as Paris canal migrant camps swell
Photo: The Local/Lina Agabani Puch
Around 1,600 migrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, have constructed makeshift shelters under an overpass in the northern Villette area — one of the largest camps in the French capital since the surge in arrivals to Europe beginning in 2015.
An additional 600 people, mainly Afghans, are sleeping in a tent city along the trendy Canal Saint-Martin.
In summer the banks of the Canal St Martin are usually packed with young revellers enjoying a drink and picnic by the water but now the tents stretch down the towpaths from Jaures Metro, until the metal fences which have been erected to prevent the camp spreading.

The tents along one side of the canal are mostly occupied by Afghans, while on the other side there are mostly Africans from Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Mauritania and Cote d’ivoire.

Empty water bottles and debris scattered around.

Abdul Jabar, 24, from Afghanistan has only been in France for the past five days, but his journey from Afghanistan took him 6 months.

He travelled from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Iran to Turkey to Bulgaria to Serbia, and then hopped on a truck to France.

“It’s very bad here. I have no bed no food and no shower and it’s very cold at night,” said Jabar who says his parents encouraged him to make the journey and ask for asylum. 

When asked if he regrets the journey though, he says no. “Here there are no bombs.” Jabar says he seeks schooling, work, and a better life in France

Samsour, aged 19 and also from Afghanistan has been in France for the past three months after travelling through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Hungary, and finally Germany where his demand for asylum was rejected. 

His asylum demand was also rejected in France and he now plans on going to Calais to try his chances in England.

'I regret coming here everyday'

Samsour says all he can do is continue trying. He wants to write a book about his story.

Sierra, a 19-year-old from Senegal has been in France for the past 3 months after travelling through Mali, Algeria, Libya and Italy.

“You call the asylum offices, but agents don’t take your call. I keep trying but the lines are always occupied.”

He says that even when they accept someone’s request for asylum, such as the case for his friend, you’re not given housing, and are left to live by the canal. 

“I left after my parents died. I tried living with my aunt but there were too many family problems,” he said.

Sierra thought he would come to France and continue his studies in law.

“I regret coming here now. Not just sometimes, everyday I regret it. I sleep on the floor. At least back home I had a little roof over my head,” he said.

“I saw on television that France was this country of fraternity and liberty, but I come here and I’m left to this camp where there is always fighting and problems.

A fight broke out between an Afghan and some of the Africans after a member of the public began handing out food. Each group accused the other of taking too much food or keeping it to sell on later.

'Unlike any we've ever seen in Paris'

Louis Barda of Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) said this week that “the situation is increasingly alarming,”, calling the Villette camp “unlike any we've ever seen in Paris”.
While two doctors nearby were treating patients as others washed their clothes in the nearby canal, a young man suddenly began convulsing, AFP witnessed on a visit to the camp.
The seizures stopped a few minutes later, but the man was muttering gibberish with a panicked look on his face. He refused to go along with first 
responders for treatment.
“He probably took some drugs,” Barda said, adding that he and his colleagues had noted “more and more addictions” at the site.
Tensions “have clearly gotten worse over the past two weeks,” he said, citing people who have needed treatment “after being hit with iron bars, people with gaping wounds, knife cuts”.
On Sunday a Sudanese man was seriously injured during a fight, while a young Afghan drowned in the Canal Saint-Martin last week.
Another migrant's body was also fished out of the canal near the “Millenaire” camp at La Villette (see pic below).
Meanwhile volunteers are grappling with an outbreak of respiratory and skin conditions such as scabies in the squalid, tightly packed camps.
“The security and health of the people living in these camps, but also of members of aid associations and local residents, are no longer assured,” according to a petition signed by more than 30 aid groups, released Thursday.
'Knife in the stomach'
“I've been here about two weeks,” said Ahmad at the Millenaire camp. “It's so difficult, at night it's so cold, no good food, no washing — it's a terrible time.”
“Three or two days ago I saw one person, someone hit him with a knife in the stomach,” he said.
Aid groups say the camps have attracted smugglers from the port city of Calais, offering them a chance to reach Britain — where many migrants believe it would be easier to find work and potentially asylum.
But “if you want go to England you have to pay 1,000 euros ($1,180). It's too expensive!” said Beniam, a 26-year-old Eritrean, who says he prefers France because of its “schools and jobs”. 
“Their days are reduced to finding food, toothpaste or soap, to washing their clothes. They're stuck in these camps and unable to imagine anything else,” said Alix of the NGO Utopia 56, declining to give her full name.
“What's happening here is also because the state isn't accepting its responsibilities, so citizens and associations have to pick up the slack,” she said.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has called on the government of President Emmanuel Macron to find shelter for the migrants, only to be told that unless she wants government forces to evacuate the site, the problem is hers.
The impasse has led to a series of calls for urgent action, with senior Paris priest Benoist de Sinety denouncing “a total absence of humanity”.
“If you let the camp get bigger, you're leaving them exposed to smugglers,” said Barda of Medecins du Monde.
“They'll do their deals and maintain the trafficking, fuelling all the tensions we're seeing today.”
by Lina Agabani Puch/AFP

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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.