'Back to the street': France's unimagined and unimaginable migrant crisis

One hundred thousand asylum seekers have made their way to France in 2016, a country now playing catchup with what some say was a foreseeable crisis, Michelle Gagnon writes from Paris.

Asylum seekers set up makeshift camps in Paris again a week after police clear them from streets

Outside the Jaurès Metro station in Paris, Afghan asylum seekers live three to four to a tent (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Two queen-sized mattresses lie on the pavement outside Paris's Stalingrad Metro station. Six or seven people sit or lie on each, talking, eating or sleeping. One watches a small child running around beneath the overhead tracks.

They are the first sign that some of Paris's asylum seekers are back.

Ten days ago, a dramatic police operation dismantled makeshift camps in the north end of Paris and evacuated an estimated 1,500 from its streets.

Within a week, hundreds had returned. Official figures are scarce, but come lunchtime the numbers are there.

African migrants return to live on the streets of Paris where they know people and can count on at least one meal a day (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Three volunteers from two faith-based organizations bring food for 400 to avenue de Flandre, offering vegetables, bread and water for the Eritreans, Ethiopians and Sudanese whose pop-up tents line the median there.

Disorganized clutches of slow-moving men suddenly line up quickly under the blistering sun. Several signal not to take their picture. Hasna, one of the volunteers, is clearer.

"No faces," she shouts across the median. It's a common request for migrants who fear for family left behind, and for themselves, all too well aware that they lack legal standing.

Their vulnerability is what draws the charities, of course, and also what makes the migrants prey to almost everyone's agenda.

Too little, too late?

In May, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo promised to create two new reception centres in Paris come fall.

French President François Hollande's government has also pledged to create an additional 9,000 places in centres across the country by end of year.

We failed to anticipate even when all the signs were there.- Pierre Henry

It's all too little, too late, according to Pierre Henry, director of France Terre d'Asile, an NGO that assists asylum seekers applying for refugee status.

"We failed to anticipate even when all the signs were there," he says. "When you have a 100 people entering the country every day and 100,000 asylum requests in 2016 so far, but only 50,000 places for them, you're going to have a problem."

And possibly more than one, according to the volunteers on the street. 

"I don't care about shelter," says Hasna, from the Muslim collective Al-Karama, who insists her parents only gave her one name.

"It means dignity," she adds, making her priorities clear.

"The shelters they're brought to are shameful. There's no dignity there. The attitude is 'sleep and shut up.' So they come back to the street to eat."

Charles Drané from ADRA France has served lunch to migrants living on Paris streets every day for two months (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Volunteer Charles Drané is less categorical.

"I don't know, I haven't been. But that's what they tell us," says Drané, who's with Adra France, the local arm of the Adventists' international charity.

"Most were evacuated to the suburbs. But they're isolated there. They prefer to be with people they know," says Drané. "The aim is not so much to give them shelter as it is to get them off the street, to disperse them."

Not quite, says Henry.

"Most stay once they've found a roof, but some do go back to the street. Some aren't eligible for asylum in France. In Europe, you have to apply in the country where you land. France can request that an asylum seeker be readmitted to another country, but it's unlikely," says Henry. "Solidarity isn't the strongest thing in Europe."

Nor is it in Paris, apparently.

Pop-up tents, mattresses and couches line the median of avenue de Flandre once again. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Simone Spichiger is a resident of avenue de Flandre. The older, primly dressed woman accosts me while I'm taking photos.

"I hope you're going to publish those. You have to show people what's going on. People don't realize. Let me tell you. It was unimaginable. It started on the first block and grew from there," she says, pointing about.

"When you see people on your street sleeping on mattresses and blankets and cardboard, it's disgusting. It was quite smelly. Can't you smell it? Well, this is nothing compared to what it was. If you'd seen the garbage left in front of my place after the evacuation … they had to shovel it out."

A divided country

She's momentarily worried this will make her look bad, but dismisses the thought just as quickly and carries on.

"France is always divided over these issues. Oh, I had a fight with one of the volunteers. They called me a fascist and every other name going. You have those who say: 'They're poor people who've fled war.' OK. But then it should be up to politicians to be responsible."

That's a tall order as the 2017 presidential election looms and acts as backdrop against which almost everything happens here. The migrant crisis and its many ramifications have become a flashpoint for politicians looking to score points.

The migrant camp in Calais must be fully dismantled by the end of the year, French President Francois Hollande said Monday. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)

The camp at Calais best known as "the jungle" is perhaps the strongest case in point.

Hollande toured the camp Monday, his first visit ever. He repeated his pledge to relocate its 9,000 residents to centres across the country and to close the squalid camp "completely and definitively" bythe end of the year.

And yet, almost unthinkably, it remains a destination for some. 

'No idea where I was'

A few blocks from avenue de Flandre, tents and mattresses crowd the exit of the Jaurès Metro station where Afghan migrants have set up camp again.

Several point at their tents and raise three or four fingers to signal the numbers who live inside. A few speak a smattering of English, enough to translate for a teen who wants to talk.

"Can you help me get to Calais?" asks Oryakhil Zaiyauden, a 16-year old Afghan. "I have family there."

Zaiyauden has been in France for close to a month. He was swept up in the mid-September evacuation, but returned to Metro Jaurès as soon as he could.

Oryakhil Zaiyauden, a 16-year-old Afghan, points at the mattress he sleeps on under the overhead track at the Jaurès Metro station in Paris. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

"I had no idea where I was," he says.

He seems unaware of the terrible conditions in Calais, of the president's promise to close it or of the wall being built by the British to keep the camp's residents from reaching the U.K.

And he doesn't seem to care. "My parents sent me," he says.

Charged with his family's future, he is single-minded about getting there. 


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.