Paris is known as the City of Lights. But it is also home to many refugees. About 40 percent of people seeking asylum in France live in Paris. Many of them live on the streets.
Rights activists have sharply criticized the country’s treatment of asylum seekers. The most recent criticism came from the Council of Europe, Europe’s top rights group.
French lawmakers are now considering a plan to improve the asylum process. Activists say the asylum issues in France can also be found in other European Union nations. They say the EU’s hardening position toward illegal immigration has hurt those who truly need shelter.
Many people visit the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris. But few visitors ever see an area about 1.6 kilometers from Montmartre. It has a busy overpass that houses a collection of small, dirty tents. The Paris Metropolitan Area, or Metro, transport system operates over the bridge. Trains pass below.
Most of the people living in this tent camp come from East Africa. Everyone has a different story. But nobody wanted to live on this bridge, with no home and, for now, no future.
Twenty-four-year-old Mikias says he was a student in Ethiopia’s capital before leaving the country in 2013. He spoke with reporter Lisa Bryant.
“Why did you leave Ethiopia?”
“Because we had a political war. Like you know, (the) ethnic group Oromo? Well, I’m Oromo.”
Mikias says he asked for asylum in France and received papers. He is waiting for a final meeting on his request with French officials. That meeting is set for six months from now. Until then, he is stuck in this tent camp.
Twenty-five-year-old Prasi says he also was a student. He formerly lived in the Darfur area of Sudan. He says he left the area because the government would not leave him alone. So he crossed the desert to Libya and joined a large number of people on a small boat. But the boat broke in the Mediterranean Sea. He says the Coast Guard rescued the passengers and brought them to Europe.
Rights activists have heard the stories many times before. France has Europe’s second largest number of asylum seekers, after Germany.
Jean-Francois Dubost is the head of Amnesty International France’s Uprooted People’s Program. He says many asylum seekers go to Paris.
“That explains (why) there is a huge problem of reception conditions, housing and accommodation for these people. And that’s why we can find places where they are just living everywhere, in places where there is nothing.”
Asylum seekers are not meant to live on the streets. Under French law, the government is required to give asylum seekers a place to stay while their claims are processed. The European Union also sets rules that governments must meet. But for now, France simply does not have enough places to house all the asylum seekers.
Eric Lejoindre is the top official in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, where the tent camp is found. He says things must change.
“They come from countries where it’s impossible to live. And up to today, we haven’t had problems of violence or theft … but the campment can’t stay. The campment can’t stay because it’s not a place to live.”
A bill in the French parliament aims to fix some of the problems. It would cut in half the time to process asylum requests to about nine months.
“I think it’s important that France … stays a place where people who seek refuge can find refuge. But everything can’t be concentrated around Paris, and the country as a whole has to be part of the asylum policy. And that’s the whole point of the reform which is being passed in parliament.”
Amnesty International’s Jean-Francois Dubost says there are good parts of the bill. But he also has concerns.
“The whole spirit of the law proposed by the French government is quite oriented into the fight against false refugees. And this is our great concern. The spirit isn’t going the right way.”
Rights activists say resisting refugees is a problem in other parts of Europe. The U.N. refugee agency says it is worried about reports that some E.U. countries have blocked the entry or forcibly returned asylum seekers and refugees.
Back at the camp on the bridge, the asylum seekers say they do not trust the political system. They are instead counting on hope – and a long wait.
I’m Bob Doughty.
This report was based on a story from reporter Lisa Bryant in Paris. George Grow wrote it for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.
Words in This Story
asylum – n. political protection given by a government to a person from another country
rights – n. what a person legally and morally should be able to do or have
transport – adj. moving people or goods from one place to another
camp – n. a place with temporary housing
passengers – n. people travelling by airplane, train, boat or car who are not the pilot or driver