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A makeshift centre for male migrants in Paris sparks controversy

Anna Sansom | Two young Sudanese migrants chat at the temporary camp in the 15th arrondissement in Paris on August 20.

The mayor of Paris’s 15th arrondissement says he was never consulted on the decision to house hundreds of male migrants temporarily at a local gym as France struggles to find long-term solutions to its refugee influx.


Around 435 men have been staying at the gym, part of Université Paris-Descartes, since Friday, when 2,500 migrants were evacuated from Porte de la Chapelle in northern Paris.

The decision to turn the university sports complex into a temporary shelter was taken by the Paris police prefecture and has infuriated Philippe Goujon, mayor of Paris's 15th arrondissement (district) and a member of the conservative Les Républicains party.

“This is the third time that a gym in the 15th arrondissement has been chosen, without me being informed, in order to be transformed into a camp for migrants – the majority of whom are clandestine and not eligible [to seek] asylum," he was quoted as saying in French daily Le Monde on Saturday.

Goujon denounced a “deafening” silence from the MPs of French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République en Marche. “I regret that the new president of the French Republic follows the same policy of lack of immigration control as his predecessor (François Hollande),” he said.

At the temporary centre, 10 white tents holding 20 beds each have been erected on the athletics pitch. Around 150 men are housed in one gymnasium and 135 others are housed in a second gymnasium.

Several residents of the 15th arrondissement object that the migrants are being installed in their neighbourhood, while others are more sympathetic. "I think it’s good because for once we’ve really transformed something for them," Eugénie, a woman in her fifties who does not wish to give her last name, tells FRANCE 24. "The presence of the migrants in the area doesn’t bother me because the situation is controlled.”

Her 22-year-old son, Léo, has ambivalent feelings about the situation. “It’s a temporary solution, but it’s a bit bizarre to see white tents installed in the middle of Paris,” he says. “But it’s not conceivable in the long term because the students have to return.”

The centre shelters the highest number of migrants in the Paris region since the closure of temporary camps at Porte de la Chapelle. The migrants were put on buses and sent to various arrondissements and to other towns in the Ile-de-France region.

In an agreement with the Paris prefecture and the French charity Association Aurore, the migrants can stay at the venue for just two weeks – and this term can be renewed for an additional two weeks only. Then the centre will be dismantled before students return in September and October.

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“There are many people from the Horn of Africa, such as Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, as well as from countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan," says Hue. "The average age of the migrants is 30.”

Some people have criticised the fact that there are no women or families at the centre. Asked why this is, Hue replies, “There were very few women at Porte de la Chapelle and they were re-sheltered somewhere else. We don’t mix people of different sexes on the same site. It could quickly become problematic if you had 300 men and seven women. The dignity of each person needs to be respected, which isn’t easy in a collective shelter.”

After the dismantling of the temporary camp in four weeks’ time, the migrants will be moved on again. “The majority of the more permanent shelters are outside Paris, in the provinces, so after leaving here, the migrants will go there to continue working on their administrative status,” says Hue.

One stop on a long journey

On a recent sunny Sunday morning, several migrants are playing football on a university athletics pitch requisitioned earlier this week as a temporary shelter. Others are sitting on black plastic chairs on the grass, chatting to friends, surfing the Internet on their mobile phones or listening to music. The atmosphere is relaxed and calm as the young men settle into their new surroundings.

For the migrants, the temporary set-up has one obvious advantage: It allows them to play sport. “It’s good here and we can play football,” says Haran Adam, 26, who left Sudan two months ago. “After leaving Sudan, I went to Libya and caught a plastic boat with 130 onboard for Sicily. The boat ride took seven hours. Then I went to Ventimiglia (on the Italy-France border) before travelling from the south of France to Paris.”

The uncertainty of not knowing where he’ll go next preys on Adam’s mind. “I want to stay in Paris. They haven’t told us where we’ll go after here.”

Others do not wish to stay in France. “The UK is our dream destination for many reasons: working, education, humanity – a good life and democracy,” says Mahir Ahmed, 25, who left Sudan “three or four” years ago. “I stayed in Libya for two years, then Italy for two months and I’ve been in France – first Marseille, then Paris – for two months,” he says.

Like many, Ahmed had not the faintest idea that he would be relocating to the 15th arrondissement after the Porte de la Chapelle centre was closed. “They didn’t tell us anything about this camp. I’m not happy here.” His Sudanese friend Alzain Ibrahim chips in: “The food is terrible.”

The sense of insecurity is shared by Kkr Raees, 23, from Khost in the east of Afghanistan. “I left there five years ago because of the Taliban and because life in Afghanistan is very difficult,” he says about Khost, a town under American control where the Taliban have been waging an insurgency. Most recently, a Taliban suicide bomber killed 13 people in May of this year. Raees’s quest for stability has taken him from Afghanistan to Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany and now France. “I like France, and I want to live here and have a happy life.”

As the migrants get used to their temporary shelter, Hue decries the repeated failure to find a permanent solution. “The migrant crisis is going to continue and continue for the forseeable future, because there are many countries suffering from war and violence, which we’d struggle to deal with ourselves [if we were in a similar situation],” he says.

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