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'There's room for everyone': Paris clears out makeshift migrant camps

Close to 4,000 migrants were evacuated from makeshift camps in Paris Friday in the city's largest effort yet to move asylum seekers into temporary shelters, Michelle Gagnon writes.

Asylum seekers relocated from tents on streets to temporary shelters

Close to 4,000 migrants were relocated from makeshift camps to temporary housing across Greater Paris on Nov. 4, 2016. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

More than 3,800 migrants were evacuated from makeshift camps in Paris Friday in the city's largest effort yet to move asylum seekers to shelter.

The 30th operation of its kind moved Afghans, Sudanese, Ethiopian and Eritreans from the makeshift camps around the Stalingrad and Jaurès metro stations to temporary shelters across Greater Paris.

The joint operation by the City of Paris and the state mobilized 600 police officers, 250 volunteers from aid organizations, 80 buses and countless citizen collectives sympathetic to the migrants' cause.

The numbers of migrants living on the streets of Paris swelled in the last few weeks, especially after the closing of the camp in Calais.

On Oct. 28, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo urged the government to help with what she called a "dramatic health and humanitarian" situation. The numbers relocated Friday far exceed previous estimates of around 2,500 living in the makeshift camps.

The joint operation to move migrants off the streets of Paris involved 600 police officers, 250 volunteers from aid organizations, 80 buses and countless citizen collectives. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Under the cover of darkness, the operation began at the Afghan camps at the Jaurès metro station and along the Quai de Jemmapes. The area was cordoned off by riot police and closed to traffic, as were the two metro stations that have become namesakes for the camps.

Juliana Vidal, from one of the citizen collectives, arrived at 9 p.m. Thursday.

"Some of the tents are hidden away, so we spent two hours warning them that they were going to be evacuated.

"We stayed up all night to patrol a bit, and at 4 a.m. we woke everyone so that they had time to pack and prepare calmly."

Fending off the cold

The mood was calm, quiet almost. Several hundred young Afghan men huddled together close to the sidewalk, some wrapped up in blankets and duvets to fend off the morning cold.

At dawn, a handful of Afghan migrants anxiously await transport away from the makeshift camp. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Akber had his parka collar pulled up as high as he could. He speaks little English, but enough to say he's happy to leave his tent and find a roof.

"Where is the bus going?" he asked, worried it's leaving Paris, where he's filed his claim for asylum.

"I was fingerprinted here," he said, holding his hands up as proof.

The buses moved the migrants to temporary shelters, some outfitted in gymnasiums. They have been reserved for two weeks and are renewable upon request.

According to Patrick Vieillescazes, a local official on site, 3,855 spots have been secured across Greater Paris. At 8 a.m., authorities were still looking for more.

"They are very temporary solutions, a stop gap measure," said Hidalgo, on the ground later in the morning.

Rather, the objective is to get the migrants to shelter first and then start addressing their asylum claims.

Hoping to get to Italy

But Omar Chinooari didn't want to go.

"Where I can get a bus to Italy?" he asked.

He arrived in Paris Thursday night and was swept up in the evacuation.

"What I do here?" he asked. He said he has enough money for a ticket to Rome, where he wants to join a friend. He was hoping to get off this ride and find another to take him out of France.

There are too many migrants in Paris to deal with them properly.- Juliana Vidal

The last bus in the queue drove off just after 7 a.m., leaving a handful of Afghans standing on the sidewalk. The volunteers from the collectives stuck around to ensure they would be picked up.

"They'll send another bus today," said Vidal.

"There are too many migrants in Paris to deal with them properly. The paperwork takes a lot of time. And considering that it's very cold and that there are families with babies living in tents, some without mattresses, this is a good thing. Even if they're going to be in gymnasiums."

'This is the last bus'

Forty minutes later, the police started shepherding the last of the Afghans onto a bus.

"Ten more, 10 more," one shouted in English so that the Afghans understand.

"C'mon, faster. This is the last bus. Everyone inside."

The operation to relocate the migrants ended without incident just after 1 p.m. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

By 8 a.m.  the operation was moving up the street to Avenue de Flandre, where a much greater number of Sudanese, Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants needed to be moved. It was raining and rush hour was in full swing.

Rerouted by the roadblock, redirected by the riot police, some Parisians growled about the disruption to their day.

"What an image of France this is," one woman said, taking her anger out on one of the police officers.

The evacuation on Nov. 4, 2016, was the largest Paris has seen and went off without incident. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

At the top of the street, women and children and families were gathered.

Spaces for the most vulnerable

A city official said they numbered about 150, but he suspected they would find more women and children as the operation evolved.

Exceptionally, they are to be housed within Paris, the city having carved out specific places for the most vulnerable.

A few blocks down the Avenue, where the single men were grouped, the air was thicker.

Families, women and children wait for transport on Avenue de Flandre. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

They crowded the buses, shouted and pushed to get on board. The police managed the situation, pushing back, until one eventually yelled out: "There's room for everyone."

The operation ended without incident just after 1 p.m.

Hidalgo thanked everyone involved in ending a "shameful" situation that was "unworthy" of both the migrants and the residents of the area. 

'Stop, rest, wash'

She said that the Paris "humanitarian" centre promised last May will open as soon as possible. It can accommodate a maximum of 400.

"It will be a place where migrants who arrive in Paris can stop, rest, wash, sleep, eat. A place where they can make some decisions about their situation before moving on."

The number of migrants on Paris streets swelled in the last few weeks, especially after the closing of the camp in Calais. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

She said it will allow authorities to deal with the situation as it develops and avoid a repeat of the last weeks.

But Vidal isn't sure that's possible. 

"The camp will start rebuilding tonight. People come every day. By tonight, there will be more people, and then more and more."

About the Author

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

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