Hundreds of French police cleared a huge migrant camp in northeast Paris on Friday in a fresh sign of the government’s determination to take refugees off the streets and into shelters.
The evacuation of 3,800 people from the Stalingrad area of the city came less than two weeks after the demolition of the notorious “Jungle” camp in the northern port city of Calais.
Starting at dawn, police arrived to wake people sleeping in tents or on mattresses under an overhead metro line, 15 minutes’ walk from Gare du Nord railway station.
The area around Stalingrad, a gritty multi-ethnic part of the capital, is a magnet for migrants and police have repeatedly cleared camps there, only for them to spring back up days later.
But six months before elections, Socialist President Francois Hollande has said he is determined to take refugees off the streets and that France needs to offer a better welcome.
“We’ve got to grips with this issue. Their conditions were disgraceful, unbearable,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told reporters on Friday.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said there was now “no humanitarian problem in Calais and there isn’t one either in Paris.”
While some activists welcome the fresh political will to tackle a long-standing problem, they stress that France has been slow to react to a crisis that has grown in intensity over the last two years.
It has lagged behind other countries, Germany in particular, in providing appropriate lodgings for refugees to seek safety.
“Our worry is always the same: that the facilities in the shelters are absolutely not the same standard,” local activist Valerie Osouf told AFP, criticising the dirty and costly hotel rooms being used in some cases.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has announced the creation of the city’s first refugee transit camp, which will have initial capacity for 400 men. It is set to open this month in a disused railway yard in the north of the capital.
In Stalingrad, the arrival of the first bus before dawn on Friday was greeted with cheers from a crowd of hundreds of Afghans who had gathered, bags packed, to take it.
“I don’t know where we are going,” said 28-year-old Khalid. “The important thing for me is to have my papers. I have been here in a tent for a month, it’s good to leave.”
Most of the people in the camp, which included hundreds of women and children, were from war-wracked Afghanistan and Sudan or the repressive African state of Eritrea.
The clearance, which finished around lunchtime when the last bus left, came after authorities dismantled Calais’ Jungle camp and dispersed its 7,000 inhabitants around the country.
The squalid settlement, home to up to 10,000 at its height, had served for years as a jumping-off point for migrants attempting to stow away on trucks and trains crossing the Channel to Britain.
The last shelters and shacks were torn down last week, which coincided with an increase in the numbers of people sleeping rough in the capital.
Plans to house migrants in public buildings across the country, including in rural areas, has created unease and resistance from some local mayors.
Many migrants, particularly those bussed to far-flung locations, have simply left and returned to Paris or gone back to the north coast to resume their efforts to slip into Britain, activists say.
Europe is facing its biggest migrant crisis since World War II. More than 1.5 million people have crossed the Mediterranean since 2014 to escape wars or poverty in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
France has welcomed a fraction of the number of asylum seekers who have headed to Germany, which registered 890,000 refugees last year.
France received 73,500 new requests in 2015, up 24 percent, according to interior ministry figures.
Authorities have forecast 100,000 new requests this year. AFP