France is Busing Homeless Immigrants Out of Paris Before the Olympics

by Pelican Press
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France is Busing Homeless Immigrants Out of Paris Before the Olympics

The French government has put thousands of homeless immigrants on buses and sent them out of Paris ahead of the Olympics. The immigrants said they were promised housing elsewhere, only to end up living on unfamiliar streets far from home or flagged for deportation.

President Emmanuel Macron of France has promised that the Olympic Games will showcase the country’s grandeur. But the Olympic Village was built in one of Paris’s poorest suburbs, where thousands of people live in street encampments, shelters or abandoned buildings.

Around the city over the past year, the police and courts have evicted roughly 5,000 people, most of them single men, according to Christophe Noël du Payrat, a senior federal official in Paris. City officials encourage them to board buses to cities like Lyon or Marseille.

“We were expelled because of the Olympic Games,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, from Chad, who was evicted from an abandoned cement factory near the Olympic Village. He moved to a vacant building south of Paris, from which the police evicted residents in April. A bus drove them two hours southwest to a town outside Orléans.

“They give you a random ticket,” said Oumar Alamine, from the Central African Republic, who was on that bus. “If it’s a ticket to Orléans, you go to Orléans.”

Officials with Mr. Macron’s government declined to comment. But they have said that this is a voluntary program intended to alleviate Paris’s emergency housing shortage.

We followed the trail from Paris, to see how the program works.

Why is Macron busing people?

There is not enough shelter space for the 100,000 homeless people who live in and around Paris — half the total in France — so the government set up 10 temporary shelters across the country last year.

The government denies that the busing is connected to the Olympics. But we obtained an email, which was first reported by the newspaper L’Équipe, in which a government housing official said the goal was to “identify people on the street in sites near Olympic venues” and move them before the Games.

The heart of the Olympics is Seine-Saint-Denis, where roughly one in three people are immigrants — the highest percentage in the country. The government has spent billions redeveloping the area.

How does the program work?

The police increased raids on homeless camps and abandoned buildings last year. Working with city officials, they evicted people and said they would help relocate them.

“They promised us housing and social help,” said Yussuf Ahmed, from Sudan, who works cleaning airplanes at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Many did not know that they were entering a government program to screen them for potential asylum — and potentially deport them. The program has existed for years but the evictions have brought in thousands of new people, many of whom are ineligible for asylum.

Mr. Ahmed, for instance, has refugee status and could not benefit from the program. But several people told us they thought they had no choice but to get on the bus.

“Police officers came,” Mr. Alamine said. “They surrounded us.”

Where do people end up?

After arriving in their new cities, homeless people live in shelters for up to three weeks and are screened for asylum eligibility.

Those who are eligible can receive long-term housing while they apply for asylum. But about 60 percent of people in the temporary shelters do not get long-term housing.

Several have been given deportation orders, which is why some lawyers urge people not to get on the buses and take their chances on the streets. “It’s an antechamber to deportation,” said Emmanuel Pereira, a lawyer working near Paris.

The remaining immigrants are typically evicted once more. Emergency housing is in short supply, so most people soon end up homeless again in a new city.

City officials outside Paris told us that they had not been consulted about the program.

“There’s no money to find places for the homeless in Marseille, but there is money to bring homeless people from Paris?” said Audrey Garino, deputy mayor of Marseille.

What happens next?

We headed a few hours southwest of Paris to find out.

The Orléans shelter is outside that city in a gray three-story hotel. When we arrived, we found no staff members or social workers. Rooms are small, with two single beds side by side.

The men we met had left their jobs in Paris and boarded a bus hoping for long-term housing and social services.

“We arrived and there was nothing,” Mr. Ahmed said. “They lied to get us on the bus.”

After a few weeks, they were told to leave: No local shelter could house them.

Mr. Ahmed, desperate to keep his airport job, returned to Paris. The building where he had once lived was now off limits, protected by security guards. He has found another abandoned building, for now.

Mr. Alamine and Mr. Ibrahim decided to stay. Most days, they make the hourlong walk to Orléans in search of work.

The keys to their room in the shelter no longer work so they broke in through the windows.

They are squatters once again.

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