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Late afternoon sun slanted into Taha’s tent as the 25-year-old migrant described fleeing Sudan for Europe. He left because of the war in his homeland, he said, and traveled from Libya to Italy by boat before arriving in France. He has lived in the tent, which is in a camp in front of the Austerlitz train station in the southeast of Paris, for six months.
His tent is one of about 100 nestled along the banks of the Seine in front of the train station. A handful are on a patch of grass near a row of parked cars, others are underneath a bridge, and some are in the courtyard of a refurbished industrial-style building that is home to a fashion and design complex. The camp has been growing since the first tents appeared a year ago.
The atmosphere was calm at Austerlitz, even though earlier in the day hundreds of people were evacuated from another camp in the north of the city. For months, migrants, many from East Africa, lived on a stretch of concrete beneath an elevated Métro track near La Chapelle. Traffic-clogged thoroughfares ran by both sides of the camp, which was not far from the Gare du Nord and the white domes of the Sacré-Coeur basilica.
As dawn broke in Paris on Tuesday, police blocked streets near La Chapelle and directed migrants onto buses. Authorities then bulldozed the site. Paris police chief Bernard Boucault released a statement confirming that 250 tents and 380 people were removed because of health risks such as scabies and dysentery. “In addition to problems of hygiene, there have been threats to the public order because of tension among certain occupants of the camp,” he said.
Meanwhile, as police in Paris were evacuating La Chapelle, in and around the port of Calais, police were busy clearing out two camps that housed roughly 140 migrants of Sudanese and Eritrean origin. The day before, fights broke out among residents of a Calais settlement known as “the jungle.”
In the capital, the migrant camp where Taha lives remained quiet. Tents were zipped shut against the gray morning chill. Seagulls bobbed on the nearby Seine. A gentle breeze rippled the water.
“No one has said anything to us,” he said when asked if he feared an evacuation. With nowhere else to go, he hopes to stay at the Austerlitz camp. “It’s nice here,” he said. There are food deliveries two or three times a week, usually from local organizations or sympathetic passers-by.
Yet Parisian officials say the Austerlitz camp will be next. “Evacuation will take place in the coming days,” a city spokesman confirmed by telephone.
The question of what to do with the so-called boat people — those who make the difficult and potentially fatal trip across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe — was once a problem that primarily affected port towns like Calais. But as a growing number of migrants arrive in Europe, that is quickly changing. In Paris the presence of two camps in the city has underscored the issue, even though many migrants have plans to continue north to countries with better economies and potentially friendlier asylum laws.
There is no way to accurately track how many migrants are in a country illegally, but according to Eurostat, 625,000 people applied for asylum in the European Union last year — a 44 percent increase from 2013. France’s acceptance rate of asylum seekers, meanwhile, decreased 5 percent from 2013 to 2014. Many countries are ill equipped to deal with the influx. Earlier this year, a Human Rights Watch report found that France is facing a “crisis of inadequate accommodation for asylum seekers.” As of 2013, only a third of people who have applied for asylum have found accommodation in designated reception centers. Among those living in migrant camps, particularly ones in Calais, there have been reports of police harassment and abuse, including beatings and attacks with pepper spray.
The issue of migration poses a massive political challenge for Europe. On Monday, France and Germany voiced concerns over the European Commission’s proposed plan to redistribute 40,000 Sudanese and Eritreans migrants across the European Union. The majority of immigrants arrive in Greece and Italy, creating particular economic and social strain on the two countries. The proposed quotas would make it mandatory for other EU countries to take in a certain number of migrants. Last month French President François Hollande said during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that immigrant quotas in Europe were “out of the question."
On Monday, the day before the evacuation at La Chapelle, camp residents went about their lives. Children played between tents. Young men kicked a soccer ball. People waited to use portable toilets and urinals. A long line formed as volunteers distributed food.
The camp at La Chapelle was striking, even for a city increasingly accustomed to homeless residents living under bridges and underpasses. With its sprawl of tents, mattresses crammed together directly on concrete and number of families with small children and babies, the camp got the attention of city residents, some of whom would occasionally stop by to deliver food. On Sunday a vegetable shop owner took leftovers to the camp after hearing about the migrants on the radio.
Because of these conditions, Pierre Henry, the head of the nonprofit aid organization France Terre d’Asile, on site during the raid to help asylum-seeking migrants, announced on French television that the move was in the interest of health and human rights. “You want to leave an outrageous situation like this, with people living in feces, in the dirt … and who have no information on their rights?” he asked. “This situation had to end. It’s ending. That’s good.”
People here are nervous. They come here from countries with war, like Sudan and Mali.
Said, a migrant in the Austerlitz camp
Of the 380 migrants forced to leave, roughly 100 presented documentation that they were seeking asylum and were taken to temporary housing, said a spokesman for the city. Minors and families with children were sent to hotel rooms around Paris, and the rest were provided with emergency housing around the region. It isn’t clear how long they will be allowed to stay. Migrants not applying for asylum are considered in transit by authorities, and if they stay in France, they risk deportation. “If they are not asking for asylum [and] they don’t have papers, they are illegal,” said the spokesman.
The Austerlitz camp will likely be evacuated in the same way that La Chappelle was. In the wake of the police action, some residents of city’s remaining camp milled about uncertainly. “People here are nervous,” remarked Said, one of the few non-Sudanese refugees living in the Austerlitz camp. “They come here from countries with war, like Sudan and Mali.” Said, 38, is from Morocco but has lived in Italy for the past 24 years. He arrived in Paris two months ago after the death of his son. He heard of the camp and went there to “pause” while he figures out what’s next.
Mandur, 25, emerged from his tent, one of about 40 beneath the bridge. “I think we’ll have to go somewhere else,” he said. “The police have been coming.” As he spoke, a police car arrived and parked between the tents and the river. Beyond the car, along the Seine, picnickers shared bottles of beer and wine, savoring a day that had turned from dreary to sunny.
He has lived in the camp for two months. He arrived after a journey that took him by car from Sudan to Libya, by boat from Libya to Italy and by train from Italy to France. “It was bad,” he said of the sea passage, describing a rough five-day journey with 50 other migrants. Now, even though he’s on stable ground, life remains precarious. “Sometimes we eat, sometimes we don’t,” he said. “We look for food.”
Like most men living in the Austerlitz camp, Mandur made the trip from Sudan alone. His parents, two brothers and two sisters stayed in Darfur. They encouraged him to go.
Even for migrants who have secured asylum status in France, the future remains uncertain. Issa, a 32-year-old Sudanese man living in the Austerlitz camp, has lived in a tent for the past year in spite of his recently acquired refugee status. “I have French papers,” he said. “But I have nowhere to live. I want housing, and I want to go to school.”
With the evacuation seemingly inevitable, there was nothing to do but wait. Part of the Austerlitz settlement lies at the foot of an outdoor staircase leading up to Wanderlust, a trendy bar and nightspot. As dusk fell, Parisians gathered around tables on the terrace for the golden hour of aperitifs. As they chatted over glasses of wine, they occasionally glanced down at the tents below. The two worlds were separated by only a staircase, but they might have been an ocean apart.