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French mayors urge government to do more to shelter asylum seekers

Christophe Archambault, AFP | A stroller is seen next to tents at a makeshift camp housing mainly families at the Porte d'Aubervilliers in Paris on April 9, 2019.

The mayors of 13 major French cities, frustrated over a lack of shelter for asylum seekers, have penned an open letter to the government demanding it do more to address the situation.

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The signatories of the appeal come from an array of political parties, and include Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

“As the mayors of major cities, we are confronted by the growing strain on the system put into place to deal with people seeking refuge on our soil, as well as a humanitarian situation that has not stopped getting worse,” the mayors wrote in the letter, which was dated Tuesday, April 23, but made public the next day. “Hundreds of men, women and children are living in dire conditions in the heart of our cities because of the solutions that have been adopted.”

Since the peak of the European migrant crisis four years ago, France has struggled to deal with an increasing number of people crossing its borders. Makeshift encampments have sprung up in major cities across the country. These are frequently dismantled by police, only to reappear in the same spot weeks later.

Because of the limited space in government reception centres, many of those living in the encampments are would-be or actual asylum seekers.

In 2018, the number of people who requested asylum in France grew by 22 percent to 122,743, according to the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Displaced Persons (Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides or OFPRA). But government reception centres only had room for 86,510.

The Federation of Actors for Solidarity – which regroups 870 different aid organisations – calculates that only one in two asylum seekers have access to government shelters.

“That doesn’t mean that the other half are in the streets. Some are housed by family members or by the community, some live in homeless shelters and others live in makeshift encampments,” Florent Gueguen, director of the Federation of Actors for Solidarity, told FRANCE 24. “We are asking for 40,000 additional beds over the next four years to meet the demand.”

The problem is particularly apparent in the French capital, where Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontiers or MSF) estimates there are now between 1,300 and 1,400 refugees living in tent cities.

“The situation in Paris has been more or less the same for the last two to three years,” Corinne Torre, head of MSF’s Mission France, told FRANCE 24. “This is because (France) has an anti-shelter policy for asylum seekers.”

Dublin Regulation

With government reception centres and homeless shelters already stretched to the brink, the situation has only been exacerbated by a European law known as the Dublin Regulation, which dictates that most asylum seekers must register their application in the country where they first entered the union.

Once registered, they cannot file a new request elsewhere. This means that many new arrivals who decide to move on for personal or practical reasons cannot access government assistance for asylum seekers in the countries of their choice. They can also be sent back to the nation that first registered their application as part of a process called Dublin transfers.

But only a small handful in France are ever relocated. During the first 10 months of 2018, 12 percent were transferred, according to Interior Ministry figures cited by Cimade, a refugee aid organistion.

“The people who are subject to the Dublin Regulation cannot access shelter in France, but are also not being sent back to the countries where their asylum demand was registered,” Gueguen said. “The Dublin Regulation is increasing homelessness in France.”

In their letter to the government, Hidalgo and her fellow mayors directly referred to the Dublin Regulation as part of the problem.

“We need to construct a collective response to the challenges posed by taking in refugees in France,” they wrote. “Which is why we are asking you to meet with us as a group in order to discuss the reception and support system for migrants, as well as providing unconditional shelter to all those on our territory, since the law dictates that everyone, including Dublin transfers, must be cared for before their hypothetical expulsion.”

Under the 1951 Geneva Convention, of which France is a signatory, refugees are guaranteed the right to housing.

“Providing shelter to asylum seekers is a government obligation. France is not respecting its legal obligations,” Gueguen pointed out.

Torres echoed his comments, describing the situation in France as a “shame”.

“We have allowed families and children, including unaccompanied minors, to live in the streets, which is not acceptable,” she said. “We have to have a national discussion with all parties concerned finding a way to take these people in.”

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