Hundreds of migrants have moved into an abandoned school in Central Paris, prompting a political row over what to do about them. The Socialist mayor of Paris first ordered them to vacate the building, but has now said they can stay. As many as 600 migrants are expected to be in situ by the end of the week.
The migrants were invited into the former Jean Quarré lycee in the 19th arrondissement of Paris by a left wing migrants rights group, who have also provided food and legal advice. Men and women are sleeping on the floors, segregated into different classrooms by nationality, but they are determined to stay, the Times has reported.
As the first hundred or so migrants arrived, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo first vowed to evict the squatters. But 24 hours later she changed her mind, leaving them in place while alternative accommodation was sought.
Deputy mayor Bruno Julliard has made it clear that he supports the dialogue, telling reporters: “We are convinced that we must make the choice of responsibility and generosity. The city of Paris has to show solidarity.”
Not everyone is happy. “It is a terrible signal to say that illegal immigrants are occupying a lycée and we don’t intervene and we don’t evacuate it,” Roger Karoutchi, an opposition senator, said. “The message to the people-smuggling networks is: ‘go to France’.”
Nadine Morano, a former Minister serving under Nicolas Sarkozy, said that Paris was “becoming dirty.” She accused the migrants of bringing “prostitution, drugs and crime,” and denounced the camps as a “scandal for the image” of France.
Mr Julliard hit back, accusing Ms Morano of “xenophobia.”
As the number of African and Middle Eastern migrants has rocketed across Europe over the last few months, so too Paris has seen a significant rise in the number of itinerants looking for shelter. Since January seven camps have sprung up around the city’s suburbs, only to be broken up by the Police.
The authorities have not provided housing which was promised, but not all of the migrants are looking to stay: many see Paris simply as a place to stop and rest before they continue on their journey to Calais, and thence to the UK.
But others are planning to put down roots in France. Upon news that the migrants were not to be evicted, they held a celebratory barbecue. Yacoub, a Libyan migrant told Libération that he welcomed the decision not to evict: “This is great news to be able to stay here. There are showers, toilets, one can cook, and we sleep under a roof. We live better than in accommodation provided by the town hall.”
Muhammad Ben al-Rashid Matassan, a 26 year old Eritrean, made the decision to stay in Paris after failing to cross the Channel at Calais for two months. “So here I am,” he said.
The Town Hall has asked that the migrants hand over a list off all in their number who have not yet formally registered for asylum, a request the migrants have refused, and that the school is made safe for habitation. For its part, the City of Paris has promised to identify public buildings that can be transformed into migrant shelters.
But Valerie Osouf, a representative of the group which organised the Jean-Quarré takeover, has expressed doubt that this will happen, and has made counter demands of her own.
“We have no confidence at all, we expect written evidence,” she said. “If they are old homes, where migrants can not have privacy, can not live properly, it’s not worth it. It must also be places in Paris to facilitate administrative procedures.”
Regarding their plans for the school, she said: “We will start offering courses in French and legal hotlines twice a week. We also want to repaint everything.”
The group has also vowed to launch a full legal battle against the government on behalf of the migrants, including social action and court proceedings.
Osouf said that the group is “full of ideas: to launch legal action, but also more punks and media actions, and others in the long term. In the shorter term we will tackle the state for failing to protect asylum seekers. We want to go to the European Court of Human Rights to create a precedent for migrants that can be rolled out for others.”