Mohammed Habbib left Darfur three years ago, reaching France in early June and requesting political asylum. The 28-year-old says he has no interest in going to Britain.
That’s the case with about 200 other migrants from 10 countries who July 31 occupied an empty former high school in northeast Paris. Another 300 have been living for the past year under a bridge near the French capital’s Gare d’Austerlitz train station.
“It’s simply not true that all migrants dream of reaching England,” said Valerie Osouf, a documentary filmmaker who is part of a group helping migrants at what used to be the Jean Quarre school. “They’ll stay where they can find a roof, a chance to work, and people willing to help them.”
While nightly images of several thousand migrants in Calais attempting to force their way onto trains and trucks to England have dominated television images and British media this summer, they are but a small part of a larger picture. In the first three months of this year, 185,000 people applied for political asylum in the 28-member European Union. Britain accounted for 4 percent of that total. Germany, Sweden, Italy, Hungary and France between them accounted for 80 percent.
The case of displaced people is even more dramatic in other countries. Turkey is home to 1.7 million refugees from Syria, with another 2.2 million spread around Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, according to the United Nations.
In the EU, governments remain at odds over what to do with refugees who reach European shores, with most countries opposing proposed national quotas for sheltering them and weighing their cases for political asylum.
“Europe is facing an unprecedented migratory crisis,” Paris deputy mayor Bruno Julliard said at a press conference Monday.
While France has reinforced its police presence in Calais to break up migrant camps in towns near the Channel Tunnel, it is trying to deal with the plight of migrants in the capital.
“Paris must give protection to those who are fleeing violence and wars,” Julliard said.
Charities say Paris isn’t doing enough to house the migrants roaming the French capital. Julliard said the 10,000 emergency beds run by the city are full, and the city is working on identifying empty buildings that could be converted into temporary shelters.
The Jean Quarre school in a former immigrant neighborhood could become one of those buildings, after some needed work is done. Named after a local member of the Resistance executed by the Nazis, it ceased operating as a high school four years ago, and now only one of its four floors is used for extra-school activities during the school year.
On a recent day, Sudanese immigrants played soccer in the courtyard while Afghans played basketball. Volunteers recently re-activated four showers, and a grill had been set up in the corner of the courtyard to cook meals.
Ali Hussein, an Afghan, said he deposited his asylum request in September 2013 and hasn’t heard back yet. Volunteers say other migrants at the school come from Eritrea, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Mali and Guinea.
Julliard said the school needs to be evacuated so that repairs can be done, but he promised that police wouldn’t force the migrants to leave the school.
In early June, police dislodged about 470 migrants from a bridge behind Gare du Nord, the train terminus for the Eurostar high-speed service to London.
That led local inhabitants to create “La Chapelle en Lutte,” a charity group that helped the migrants take over the school and has been providing them with food and metro tickets. About 7,000 euros ($7,600) raised through crowd-funding is nearly spent and another fundraising round is planned, the filmmaker Osouf said.
Julliard said city officials asked volunteers to come up with a list of the migrants at the school, and to allow an inspection team to review health and hygiene conditions. Both requests were refused.
The volunteers say they want the city to find housing for all migrants, without distinguishing between nationalities. They suspected the visit was intended to plan an eventual evacuation.
Under EU rules, migrants must apply for asylum in the first member state they reach. In reality, most don’t stay in Italy or Greece, the most common entry points where jobs are few and the language unfamiliar. Instead, they make their way north before applying.
Nationality is big determinant of success. EU countries handed down 121,600 decisions on asylum in the first quarter, of which 46 percent were positive. The acceptance rate varied from 94 percent for Syrians, 90 percent for Eritreans, 88 percent for Iraqis, 53 percent for Sudanese and just 1 percent for Kosovars and Serbians, who are generally deemed to be economic migrants.
Under a bridge near the Gare d’Austerlitz, local volunteers provide French language lessons every evening at the migrant camp.
“They have a real determination to learn,” said Marc Naelten, a 62-year-old retired administrator from the state school system.
Akramohammed, a 27-year-old from Darfur, who said he was fished out of the Mediterranean earlier this year by the Italian navy after taking a boat from Libya, reached France in June. He said he planned to request asylum in France and had no interest in going to Britain.
“I saw on TV all these people trying to break through fences,” he said. “I don’t want to do that. I’m happy to stay here.”
As he greeted other camp habitants from Darfur, he peppered his conversation with some newly learned French expressions. “Ca va? (how’s it going?),” he asked.
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