Paris city authorities moved in early Wednesday to start clearing out a makeshift migrant camp holding up to 1,500 people in the French capital that had become a focal point in the country’s immigration debate.
Officials began clearing the so-called Millénnaire tent camp on the city’s edge alongside a canal used by joggers and cyclists. It is the largest of several around Paris. Two migrants drowned this month in canals along the encampments.
City authorities said the migrants, mainly from Africa, will be taken to gymnasiums in the Paris region.
CRS riot police were deployed at dawn, some arriving by boat, as the migrants emerged from their tents and waited patiently to be bussed away from the Port de la Villette camp in the northeast of Paris.
“We don’t really know where we are going,” said a Libyan who reached Paris seven months ago and gave his name as Issam.
“It was hard here,” he added, holding on to his one piece of baggage.
The camps are at the heart of a political debate between French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo over how to handle migrants.
Police have cleared out some 28,000 migrants from Paris camps in the past three years, but the arrivals continue.
Deadly violence in camps
Paris officials say there will be a second phase soon, to remove around 800 migrants along Canal Saint-Martin and up to 400 in Porte de la Chapelle. It’s the city’s solution to an untenable situation.
Social workers such as Louis Barla of Médecins du Monde say hygiene, violent incidents and smuggling are serious concerns in migrant camps. “For the first time we have had deaths. We have two confirmed [cases]. We have seen serious wounds and emergencies have been reported. So for us, the situation has degenerated.”
At Canal Saint-Denis, refugees are mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, some of whom have made perilous trips across the Mediterranean or across the Alps. It’s a different profile at the Canal Saint-Martin camp, which holds mostly Afghans who have been refused asylum elsewhere in Europe.
Paris officials and the French government have bickered over the situation. A few days ago, Interior Minister Collomb urged Paris to make sure the camps don’t come back. But Paris city hall said the state should be putting in place a plan to integrate the migrants after the evacuation.
Those bussed out will be taken to shelters in and around Paris, where they’ll stay briefly to have their administrative situation examined. The interior ministry has stressed that this will mean some being expelled from France. For the rest though, NGOs fear some will quickly return to the streets.