PARIS – On returning home one night several years ago in a Parisian suburb, Raphaël Marre was horrified to see a group of migrants and asylum seekers sleeping in the street outside his home.
Why did the government not host them? he wondered. After witnessing the same scene for several weeks, he and his wife decided to do it themselves, joining an association that connects migrants with people from the Paris region who want to open their homes. for a few nights.
“It was a triggering moment,” said Mr. Marre. “We thought, ‘This can’t happen, we have to do something.'”
Five years after a migration crisis that shook Europe, France is still struggling to welcome the thousands of people who have applied for asylum in France. And Mr. Marre always welcomes them to his home.
The government acknowledges that it has been slow to find accommodation for asylum seekers and says it plans to add more places in the coming year. But groups like Utopia 56, the non-profit organization Mr Marre has signed up with, say additional accommodation is not enough and the government is delaying providing housing to deter more people from coming to the country. France at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is growing.
“France wants to stigmatize this population by saying:” You have nothing to do here, you are not refugees, “declared Yann Manzi, founder of Utopia 56.” It is on purpose. It’s not that we don’t have room but it’s that we want to give a clear message: ‘Don’t come any more.’ “
The government, for its part, says it is doing its best in a difficult situation. Didier Leschi, director of the French Office for Immigration and Integration, said that France was one of the few European countries to offer emergency accommodation to all without conditions and that “it does not There have never been as many asylum seekers in France as today. “
Mr Leschi said only 55 percent of the current 138,000 asylum seekers were in state-funded housing. The government is also funding another housing program that is open to everyone, with no conditions or residency requirements, but demand, again, far exceeds supply.
Government housing for migrants varies considerably across the European Union. Germany manages to house most of the housing through a combination of subsidized rentals and housing in public shelters. Italy offers limited public and temporary housing asylum to tens of thousands of applicants, but does not provide emergency accommodation to migrants who have been refused asylum.
In France, many migrants who cannot find accommodation in the Paris region flock to the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, the town hall, where volunteers from Utopia 56 help them find temporary shelter.
A family from Ivory Coast – Losseni Sanogo; his wife, Assata; and their daughter, Korotoum – got lucky on a recent night out, if only for a short time. They were going to be in contact with Mr. Marre.
“We will provide you with accommodation,” Clotilde Fournial, a Utopia 56 volunteer, told the family, who had spent the last few nights sleeping on the floor of a train station. “But that will only be for tonight.”
Less than two hours later, the family was on their way to a south-eastern suburb of Paris to stay with Mr. Marre.
Utopia 56’s private housing initiative began in 2018, when France, and much of Europe, faced a massive influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, driven from their homes. outbreaks of war and economic deprivation.
The number of migrants arriving in Europe has slowed over the past year, but the program is still in place, in part due to the growing backlog of government asylum cases.
Camille Le Coz, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said the housing shortage was compounded by the large number of people who needed help – some with protracted asylum procedures, others with nowhere to go once their case has been resolved, and those who have been refused asylum and refuse to leave.
In December, the government launched an initiative that would create 4,500 new spaces in 2021. However, it is “still far from sufficient to meet needs,” said Le Coz.
France’s struggle to welcome migrants and asylum seekers has become particularly visible in the streets of the Paris region. In what has become a seemingly endless cycle, police regularly evacuate hundreds of migrants and raze their tents and shacks, often offering them no alternative but to move elsewhere.
Utopia 56 relies on a network of volunteers, individuals, parishes and private companies that provided shelter to nearly 3,000 people during the pandemic.
Xavier Lachaume, 31, and his wife have hosted eight families in their apartment in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris, since January. For now, visitors are staying in their spare bedroom for a few nights, which they plan to turn into a bedroom for a baby they are expecting in the coming months.
For Mr. Lachaume, who works for the Ministry of the Economy, the effort of individuals is a short-term solution to a long-lasting crisis.
“We shouldn’t have to do this, it should be the state,” Lachaume said.
France recorded nearly 82,000 asylum requests in 2020, according to Eurostat, the European statistical agency. First-time applicants are down more than 40% from 2019, a drop in part attributed to the coronavirus. But Mr Manzi predicts another surge once the pandemic has passed.
President Emmanuel Macron told Brut, an online news site, in December that “the slowness of our procedures means that” asylum seekers “can indeed find themselves for weeks and months” without housing. suitable.
The political debate around migrants has also been poisoned by security concerns in recent years, with right-wing politicians and conservative news media increasingly linking illegal migration to terrorism. Mr Macron’s government has taken a tougher approach to immigration, hoping it will push far-right voters away.
Mr Sanogo said he arrived in France in 2016 after fleeing Côte d’Ivoire, citing continued unrest resulting from the 2011 civil war that tore the country apart and lived in a series of worker hostels , making money on the books as a build. worker. His wife and 9-year-old daughter joined him last month, but they were not allowed to stay at his hostel, forcing them to sleep in Gare de Lyon in Paris.
Mr Sanogo, 44, said his asylum claim on arrival in 2016 was rejected because he had not made the request in Italy, where he first arrived in Europe, as it was supposed to do under EU rules. But he said he had an appointment with a lawyer to reapply in France, this time with his family.
As he boarded the metro with his family to visit their hosts, Mr. Sanogo recounted how he left Côte d’Ivoire for Libya, where he said he was beaten and robbed by traffickers, and eventually made it to Italy after a perilous boat ride across the Mediterranean.
Mr Sanogo appeared grateful for Mr Marre’s hospitality, but aware it was only for one night, said he hid a bag full of clothes and sheets on the outskirts of Paris.
“If we have to sleep outside,” he said.
Geneva Abdul reported from London.