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Refugees face humanitarian crisis on Paris’ doorstep

Text by Sarah LEDUC

Latest update : 2011-04-25

As President Nicolas Sarkozy prepares to meet Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi Tuesday at an immigration summit in Rome, hundreds of Tunisian refugees remain stranded in a Parisian park. takes a closer look.

When Jamel [last name withheld], a sharply dressed Tunisian businessman decided to distribute 50-euro bills in a small park in Paris’s 19th district on Friday, chaos soon broke out. Crowds of homeless people from the working-class neighbourhood who showed up for the handout were quickly rebuffed.

“It’s for the Tunisians only!” yelled one young Tunisian refugee to a group of Roma, before rushing up to the man who had come to give out money in a show of solidarity with the Tunisians.

The 200 to 300 Tunisians who have been gathering in the park over the past few months fled their home country after former President Ben Ali left power on January 14, and arrived in France via the Italian island of Lampedusa, off the north African shore.

Atef, a 17-year-old, has been living in the park for three months. Originally from southern Tunisia, he struggled to make ends meet at home, working only occasional construction jobs that were not lucrative enough to keep food on the table for his family. He made the trip to Paris thinking that he could find “a job and a nice life”.

“Sometimes I don’t eat for two days. We drink water from the fountain in the park, and I sleep in a cardboard box under a bridge on the city limit,” he said, stuffing a 50-euro bills into his pocket. “I wanted to come to France so I could send money home to my mother, because my father is dead. But I spend my days here and I can’t do anything else.”

Without any income or aid from the French government and humanitarian associations, the group of refugees relies on the meals distributed periodically by fellow Tunisians living in Paris or the nearby suburbs.

“These people have been forgotten by the world,” said Tunisian-born Mouldi Miladi, who has been living in France for 25 years. Every day, he comes to give out clean t-shirts and jeans, toiletries, and food. He also accompanies some of the refugees to the neighbourhood’s public showers.

“It’s not politics we’re involved in here, we’re handling an emergency,” he said. “France has two solutions: either we let them lead a decent life in France or we send them back home.”

Traces of the revolution

Jamel, the businessman who distributed money to his exiled compatriots in the park, thinks they should go back to Tunisia, despite the economic uncertainty that has gripped the country since the revolution broke out.

“There are ideas to develop the country and jumpstart the economy. It’s not in our interest to go work aborad,” he explained. “If we think it through, we can find employment for everyone.”

But for the moment, the refugees in France are not preoccupied by the economic and political challenges that the “new Tunisia” faces. They are more concerned about finding food to survive.

French-Tunisian lawyer Samia Maktouf has volunteered to handle the case of dozens of these refugees, free of charge. On Friday, she was at the park taking down names, ages, and professions of several of the young men in the camp in order to help them apply for residency permits.

“They have the right to imagine a future after the revolution,” she said indignantly. “They dreamt of the France of the Revolution, of liberty, of equality. They dismantled a dictatorship at home with their bare hands and without violence.”

Maktouf thinks that a Europe-wide immigration policy is necessary for any long-term solution. “It’s up to Europe to intervene and stop the ping-pong between France and Italy,” she said. “Paris and Rome must offer some relief to these refugees and look into offering them legal status on a case-by-case basis.”

Over the past few weeks, French authorities have refused to let Tunisian migrants cross the border from Italy. The diplomatic rift between France and Italy deepened when France temporarily suspended a rail link to prevent a train carrying Tunisians and pro-migrant protesters from entering French territory.

The arrival of thousands of North African refugees in France, after passing through Italy, is expected to be the main issue discussed by  Berlusconi and Sarkozy at the summit in Rome on Tuesday.

Date created : 2011-04-25


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