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France is moving homeless people out of Paris as the city prepares for next summer’s Olympics

France is moving homeless people out of Paris as the city prepares for next summer’s Olympics

Paris (CNN) — It’s 6:30 a.m. in late summer in Paris. Amid the noise coming from Stalingrad metro station, northeast of the French capital, hundreds of migrants, most of them men, sleep under an overpass. Some rest on pieces of cardboard and old mattresses behind a urine-soaked fence, while others lie awake on the edge of the road.

Word spreads that government buses are about to come to pick them up. Some are waiting impatiently, hoping that they will finally be offered housing; Most of them are confused and afraid, and worry about being forced to leave Paris.

For two months, the French government has been working to accelerate the transfer of displaced persons from Paris to other regions of the country, as part of a plan to relieve pressure on emergency reception services in the capital. Each week, between 50 and 150 people are transferred to one of 10 sites spread across France, according to the government.

Although the government denies any connection to the Olympics, which Paris will host in the summer of 2024, some NGOs and elected officials believe the games are part of the reason this relocation plan was recently activated.

“We heard they were coming to get us today, but I’m not sure where,” Obsa, a 31-year-old Ethiopian political refugee, told CNN. He wishes to identify himself under a pseudonym for fear of retaliation.

Obsa made the dangerous journey to France in 2017, traveling from Ethiopia through Sudan and Libya, then across the Mediterranean to Italy.

He now has a full-time job in Paris, but even after many years in the city, he has been unable to find permanent housing, largely due to the capital’s high rental prices and limited availability of social housing. More affordable. Obsa was given emergency accommodation in a hotel, but says he was kicked out after his wife joined him. “They flatly refused,” he recalls. “They told me: ‘We don’t have room for your wife.’”

Homeless people sleep on old mattresses and cardboard under Stalingrad metro station, northeast of Paris. Photography: Dalal Moawad/CNN

Half of the country’s homeless are concentrated in the Ile-de-France region, where they have access to more charities, job opportunities and personal connections.

According to figures from the Ministry of Housing, of the just over 200,000 homeless people sheltered every night in the country, 100,000 are in Ile-de-France. There simply aren’t enough emergency shelters in Paris to accommodate everyone.

A “defining moment” for Paris

While Obsa was speaking to CNN, dozens of French police officers approached and surrounded the area. Several large white buses block the street. One of the buses carries a sign saying “Bordeaux,” and another says “Marseille,” cities hundreds of kilometers away from the capital.

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Staff and volunteers from local humanitarian organizations and Paris police speak with the migrants, who appear to have no idea what is happening.

The authorities inform the migrants via loudspeaker that they can board a bus to head to Marseille or Bordeaux, where they will be accommodated. Those wishing to remain in the capital are encouraged to prove that they have a long-term employment contract.

However, even then, they will not be guaranteed a roof over their heads. “I can’t leave, I have a one-year contract,” says Obsa, who works as an IT administrator. “I should at least stay in the Ile-de-France region.”

Police and aid workers talk with people waiting to board a bus next to a homeless camp in Paris. Photography: Claudia Coleva/CNN

In total, 1,800 homeless people, most of them migrants, have been moved out of Paris since April, according to figures revealed to CNN by the Interministerial Delegation for Housing and Access to Housing (Dehal), a government group that includes the Interior Ministry and the Interior Ministry. Living.

According to Dehal, about 10 temporary regional shelters, known as SAS, have been set up across the country to welcome new arrivals outside Paris. Each SAS can receive up to 50 people.

“All of this is happening at a critical time, which is also the preparation for the Olympics, and the inability of the state to deal with it,” said Yann Manzi, founder of Utopia 56, a French NGO that works with displaced migrants. The reality of what is happening on the streets of Paris, which means that thousands of people who have arrived in our territory continue to be left without any support.

In 2022, France received 155,773 asylum applications, according to the government. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said in several television interviews that France would openly welcome political refugees, but its doors would remain closed to any immigrant who arrived in the country illegally and did not face persecution in his country of origin. According to government figures, nearly 20,000 irregular migrants will be deported in 2022.

In a televised interview on Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that France was doing its part to help migrants arriving on European shores, spending, among other things, about 2 billion euros annually on emergency shelter for the homeless. However, he concluded that the country simply “cannot absorb all the misery in the world.”

In a parliamentary debate on 5 May, former Housing Minister Olivier Klein stated that homeless people in Ile-de-France should be moved to other areas, following the loss of emergency accommodation due to the termination of public contracts with Parisian hotels.

He added: “The proximity of major sporting events, first of all to a lesser extent, the Rugby World Cup in 2023, then the Olympic Games in 2024, forces us to think about the future and anticipate the situation, due to the evacuation policy.” “He announced.

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In a televised interview just two weeks later, on May 25, Klein denied any connection between the transfers and the Olympics.

Dehal denied to CNN that there was any connection between the transportation plan and the upcoming Games, insisting that the plan aims to reduce the burden on the Ile-de-France region and ensure greater support for the homeless in the region and more individualized in the provinces.

A spokesperson for the Paris 2024 Olympics told CNN that the relocation plan “has nothing to do” with the Games or the Rugby World Cup being held in France.

“The situation regarding emergency housing in the Ile-de-France region is, unfortunately, nothing new, and has become more serious in recent months, regardless of the fact that the region will host the Olympic Games. Paris 2024 next year.” The spokesperson said.

“We are just moving the problem”

Utopia 56’s Manzi thinks relocation could be a good idea in principle, but says the problem is that regional shelters will only house people for three weeks, depending on which cities are responsible for hosting them, and what happens after that is still up in the air. . .

SAS helps some people find housing and work they qualify for based on their legal situation, but it’s not for everyone. “On average, 25 to 30 percent return to the streets,” Manzi explains. “They find themselves at the end of these three weeks without any solution, so they end up back on the streets.”

In Bordeaux, one of the cities chosen to host the SAS programme, this figure reaches 40%. “They have disappeared,” Harmony Lecerf Meunier, deputy mayor of Bordeaux, told CNN. “We assume they will return to Paris.”

According to Dehal, the number of people who have left the SAS to which they were sent, in recent weeks, has reached about 17%.

Another problem is the lack of emergency accommodation in the areas to which migrants are transferred. “So people will find themselves on the street again, but not in Paris,” says a knowledgeable source. “We take them out of Paris and put them on the street somewhere else… We are only displacing the problem without solving it.” The matter. .

In a press release issued in May 2023, the government stated that the Minister of Housing “asked the governorates to work on establishing these centers in cooperation with local elected officials and associations.” However, the mayors of Lyon and Bordeaux, two cities that will host the SAS, told CNN that they were never consulted by the government. “We found out the day before,” said Bordeaux’s Lecerf Meunier.

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Likewise, Sandrine Ronel, deputy mayor of Lyon, told CNN that the government rushed to ease the situation in Paris and Ile-de-France without ensuring adequate resources were available elsewhere. He added, “The Olympic Games are an excuse to direct people to the regions without any thought and without even checking the regions’ reception capabilities.”

The same source says, in reference to immigrants, that “the issue of receiving foreigners is politically and socially difficult.” “That is why the government has chosen not to talk about this matter, which in my opinion is a mistake.”

It is believed that dividing reception responsibilities between regions, if done correctly, could allow France to provide more precise, humane and ultimately effective support to the thousands of migrants who enter the country every year. But for the system to succeed, it must be well funded and well managed, the same source says. Most importantly, activists and host cities argue, all participants, starting with the migrants being transported to the cities to be hosted, must be well informed and actively involved in the planning process.

He concludes: “If the government does not assume its responsibility and does not provide itself with appropriate means, it risks destroying the only useful solution for properly welcoming foreigners to this country.”

There is no guarantee of long-term housing

Back at the homeless camp under Stalingrad metro station, Abdul Latif, a 29-year-old Afghan, looks nervous. “I heard that we have to leave Paris, but I don’t want to,” says Abdellatif, who only wants to give his first name. “I will finally start training as an electrician and I need to stay here.” He decided to stay in Paris.

But the fate of those who decided to stay in the capital is also uncertain. “You either accept what they offer you or you go back to the street,” explains Al Ozzi, of Doctors del Mundo, who has witnessed several transfers.

Homeless people load their belongings onto a bus in Paris. Photography: Dalal Moawad/CNN

Although departure to the regions is voluntary, several NGOs involved in the relocation plan told CNN that migrants are often not adequately informed of what awaits them at their destination before departure. The mayors of Lyon and Bordeaux supported this statement. They said people came to their cities with the promise of permanent residency, when in fact nothing was guaranteed to them after the first three weeks in the local SAS.

Abdellatif, Obsa and others who chose not to be rehoused are taken on a Paris bus whose exact destination is unknown.

A few days later, CNN contacted Obsa again. He said that he remained homeless, and was temporarily staying with a friend in Paris. The authorities once again deprived him and his wife of emergency social housing.

“They told me there is no room for me here, not even in the Ile-de-France region. It’s unbelievable… How can an entire region not have space for two people?”