‘At first people said we were terrorists’: Fear of migrants in rural France recedes

When the quiet French town of Forges-les-Bains was chosen to host a centre for young male asylum seekers in 2016, there was uproar.

'At first people said we were terrorists': Fear of migrants in rural France recedes
Afghan migrant Ahmadzi Gul, 19 poses at an Emmaüs Solidarity center on August 28, 2018 in Forges-les-Bains. Photo: AFP
The disused hospital earmarked for the project was firebombed, some 250 residents staged a protest and NGO workers assisting the group of Afghans had their car tyres slashed.
“At first people said we were terrorists… and that we were going to give hash to the children (in the school next door),” said Asif Qaderi, 23, who was part of the first group bussed to the leafy town 50 kilometres (31 miles) south of Paris.
But the fears expressed in the town of 4,000 — of home break-ins and girls at the school next to the centre being harassed — came to nought.
The 91 men, who had been sleeping on the streets of Paris, instead devoted their energy to restoring the neglected building, pursuing their asylum claims and learning French, guided by the Emmaus Solidarite housing charity.
They also raised chickens and sheep, dug a vegetable garden, built a football field and held barbecues that helped break the ice with the community.
Afghan migrants, sheltered in a centre in Forges-Les-Bains, dance with local residents at a festival. Photo: AFP 
'Caught in the middle'
But the centre is now being closed — a symbol of opposition in many parts of France, where 60 percent of people interviewed in a June poll said the country had “too many” migrants.
Local mayor Marie Lespert-Chabrier, who made the state promise to move the Afghans on after two years, is still smarting at being forced to take the foreigners in, leaving her “caught in the middle” between youths fleeing war and misery and a hostile population.
While admitting that the fears of the refuseniks proved unfounded, she is adamant that her town has done its bit for the migrants who have poured into Europe in the past three years.
France, which registered a record 100,000 asylum-seekers last year, received far fewer migrants than the likes of Germany or Sweden, with police regularly turning people back to their EU port of arrival — usually Italy.
Once in France, most head for the streets of Paris or Calais in the north, a jumping-off point for Britain.
Afghan migrants gather at a refuge in Forges-Les Bains. Photo: AFP
Forges-les-Bains was one of dozens of towns selected to host migrants as part of a major relocation programme in 2016.
To Ahmadzi Gul, 19, it felt like a second home.
“Forges is a bit like a village in Afghanistan. It's quiet and the people are nice,” Gul, who was scarred by police violence on the migrant route in Bulgaria, said as he hoisted his belongings onto a truck bound for a shelter 30 kilometres away.
“We regret having to leave,” said Emmaus Solidarite's head Bruno Morel, for whom the centre demonstrated “that you can welcome migrants in a dignified manner, without causing any problems”.
No 'misty-eyed idealists'
A five-minute drive from Forges-les-Bains lies a town about half its size that has been hailed as a model of tolerance.
Bonnelles led the way in 2015 when it agreed to give 78 Syrian and Iraqi men shelter in a monastery.
With TV images at the time showing clashes between migrants and police at the Hungarian border, “there was a lot of concern” among residents, recalled the town's mayor of the last 23 years, Guy Poupart.
While calling on residents to show solidarity, he took care to neither demonize nor deify the newcomers. 
Afghan migrant Janzeb Khan poses at an Emmaüs Solidarity center in Forges-les-Bains. Photo: AFP
“These are humans, some of whom fled for their lives or lost loved ones.
But we did not take sides nor become misty-eyed idealists,” he said.
That approach paid off, with the monastery going on to host some 550 asylum-seekers for short periods — on average 90 young men of 14 different nationalities at any one time —  nearly all of whom praised by residents as engaging and polite.
“Nothing has changed, we don't see the refugees much,” said Sophie Derouin, co-owner of a hair salon, who had to brush up her school English to tend to new Afghan clients. 
But even in Bonnelles, where migrants and local youths have struck up friendships around football and at least one asylum-seeker found work with a local company, some residents still oppose the foreigners' presence.
“That's enough. We have enough problems with our own homeless,” Derouin's business partner Isabelle Bobinet said, a sentiment echoed by Patrick Cassert, 
owner of a cafe on the main street.
Caring for asylum-seekers “is costing France too much money,” he said.

Member comments

  1. Why is it always, and mostly, men? Aren’t they escaping from their countries where there are huge problems? Strange that they just leave their wives, daughters and mothers behind. Just asking.

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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.