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France grapples with rise in migrants

by Norimitsu Onishi The New York Times | December 15, 2019 at 3:43 a.m.

LYON, France -- Thousands of migrants from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe are living in makeshift shelters across France, including abandoned schools.

France recently overtook Germany as Europe's leading destination for asylum-seekers and is now on track to receive a record number of applications this year, in what experts said is a ripple effect of the migrant crisis. The country's previous record -- 124,000 applications -- was set last year and amounted to a 23% jump from the year before.

France has also become what experts describe as a "rebound" destination. Applicants who have been rejected for asylum in another European country are trying again in France.

Gerard Sadik, an asylum expert at La Cimade, a migrant-rights group, said Europe's lack of a "supranational asylum process" encouraged applicants to waste years before finding a country that will accept them, or before they are finally sent back home.

France has increased available housing for asylum-seekers in recent years. But in early November, it announced get-tough measures, such as restricting asylum-seekers' access to nonurgent health care and the use of a daily stipend of about $8.20 for those not provided with lodging.

President Emmanuel Macron -- a centrist who has tacked right in a move to wrest the volatile issue of immigration from his main political rival, the far-right National Rally -- recently told a right-wing magazine that his "goal is to throw out everybody who has no reason to be here."

In Lyon, the metropolitan government, which has been trying to expel squatters from a school building, is appealing a recent court ruling that allows them to stay until September.

About 450 young men sleep jammed inside the school's classrooms and manage the premises -- ensuring security, cleaning and making dinner with supplies provided by the city. Most are from France's former colonies in West Africa, though there is a growing minority from the region's former British colonies.

It all began in September 2018 when Ghassen Zaghdoud, a longtime housing activist in Lyon, set his sights on a secondary school that had closed in 2013, Maurice-Sceve.

Zaghdoud, who had spent years taking over vacant public buildings to house the homeless, said the premises seemed perfect for the young African migrants he had noticed sleeping in a nearby park.

When he began occupying the school with about 50 Africans, Zaghdoud said, he was "pleasantly surprised" by the neighbors' reaction. Within days, the squatters had more than enough food, mattresses and other donations.

"I've never had as much support from neighbors in the 20 years that I've been squatting," Zaghdoud said.

The Africans found themselves in Croix-Rousse, a hilly neighborhood away from the center of Lyon. Once the site of the city's silk-weaving industry, Croix-Rousse is now a gentrifying, sought-after neighborhood with restaurants catering to a "bobo," or bohemian bourgeois, clientele.

Sebastien Gervais, a high school math teacher who moved to Croix-Rousse two decades ago, became involved in a group that supports the squatters and has fought efforts by the city to expel them.

To Gervais, France has a responsibility to take care of the squatters, especially because they hail from former colonies where the French still exercise great economic, political and military influence.

"Some of them say they're here because France exploits their countries," Gervais said, "and I think they're right."

Lyon's metropolitan government, which owns the school property, wants to expel the squatters and use the land for a condominium project that would include a share of low-cost housing, said Pascal Isoard-Thomas, who oversees social affairs for Lyon.

The city, which is legally responsible for housing migrants who are minors, relocated squatters recognized as nonadults to public housing. But adult asylum-seekers are the responsibility of the French government, Isoard-Thomas said, adding that the city's role is now limited to being "the owner of the property."

For many of the migrants, France had loomed over them since their earliest days in kindergarten, an ineffable presence that both repelled and drew them.

"It was the country that colonized us, but they have this motto -- 'Liberty, equality and fraternity' -- which means a lot," said Mamadou Sow, a Guinean who grew up in Ivory Coast. "I thought they didn't give it to us in Africa but that I'd find it here, and that's why I came.

"But I'm here, and I don't see it," Sow added. "I'm an asylum-seeker, but they won't house me. It starts with that."

A Section on 12/15/2019

Print Headline: France grapples with rise in migrants

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