PARIS — To kill time last week, Ahmad Din was throwing old bread crusts to the pigeons. The birds barely start pecking when the rumble of this Metro overpass sends them flying away. Below the above-ground Metro station La Chapelle in northern Paris, time passes to these sounds of trains coming and going, as the young Ethiopian sat on the edge of a mattress sticking out of his tent.
On Tuesday, police began to follow through on city plans to dismantle this makeshift migrant camp that some of them have called home for months. The humanitarian organization known as France terre d’asile (France land of exile) made a list last month to count the number of migrants who were camped out together at La Chapelle. There were 380 that day.
But the numbers have been fluid since last summer when tents began to appear: some of the undocumented migrants are too suspicious to accept interviews, while others set off towards Germany or Sweden, or the UK, via the coastal city of Calais in northern France. For the French capital, this Metro underpass has become a semi-hidden symbol of Europe's exploding migration crisis.
Photo: Claire Grover via Instagram
Din has international refugee status, which was granted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Libya. This precious paper, which he kept under his mattress in a file hidden in a plastic bag, will be converted into French asylum protection.
In a neighboring gymnasium, the migrants are received one by one. Half the hall is occupied by agents of the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA). Kady is one of them. She has been interviewing migrants since the morning. "This first brief discussion is a way to see if a person is particularly vulnerable," the young woman says.
Even OFPRA's director general Pascal Brice is here, his suit and tie a stark contrast with most of the others here. "We will then hear all the asylum seekers in our offices," he says. "But this first meeting on site helps us to know which cases we will be able to handle rapidly."
People of certain nationalities, such as Eritreans or Syrians, all receive refugee status, so their cases are handled quickly. But on this recent day, cases of Ethiopians and Sudanese are also heard.
While Kady and a dozen other OFPRA staffers receive the migrants, six officers of the department for foreigners of the Paris police set up appointments and question the others, so-called "economic migrants."
Praying in the camp — Photo: Raphaël Krafft via Instagram
Dominique Bordin, the homeless task force manager for the Paris city council, says it's important to know how many asylum seekers there are so that they can be given suitable accommodation. Places must also be found for a number of women with very young children. Bordin says the migrant situation has gotten more difficult by the day.
Pierre Henry, head of the aid organization, says it is shameful the way France has ignored those in need who were camping out at La Chapelle. "I've been alerting public authorities on the state of this camp for five months," he says. "This site reflects all the disgrace of our reception policy."
Since February, the unofficial migrant camp has received new arrivals who'd originally landed in Lampedusa, or other points in southern Italy. The tent encampment just grew and grew. The city council knew the situation was no longer bearable, but it took months to get the state to promise that a "solution would be offered to all." The first goal was to find a place for each asylum seeker.
Aurélie El-Hassak-Marzorati, deputy manager of Emmaüs Solidarité, will keep a watchful eye on these government guarantees. Her teams followed the families all winter, alerted emergency services and found solutions with the city council. The young woman is now worried about what will follow. "Thinking the migrants will go on their way because the La Chapelle camp is closed down is delusional," she says. "Let's try to consider a reception worthy of a country that believes in human rights."
But even with the La Chapelle site cleared, there is another migrant encampment across the city near the “Cité de la Mode" on the banks of the Seine. Now, an eviction notice has also been served to the 300 campers there.