Act of heroism comes amid battle over refugee camp evacuation

Two refugees drowned this month in canals in Paris where tent cities have gone up, and fights at camps have led to injuries

Paris: The act of heroism by an illegal Malian immigrant who scaled the facade of a Paris apartment block to save a boy about to fall from a fourth-floor balcony, comes as French lawmakers debate a controversial bill that would speed up the deportation of economic migrants and failed asylum seekers.

Mamaudou Gassama has been living illegally in France and working in construction after arriving in the country in September last year following a perilous journey from his homeland to Libya. He told French president Emmanuel Macron during a meeting at the Elysee Palace that he had tried to cross the Mediterranean in March 2014 to reach Italy, but was caught by police.

Europe has faced a refugee crisis since 2015 following wars in Libya and Syria and more than 1 million people from Africa and the Middle East have tried to reach the continent via Turkey or by sea. Macron, a centrist, has taken a tough line on economic migrants fleeing poverty rather than refugees escaping war or persecution. His government has said it wants to be both firm and fair on immigration but it took a tougher stance lately, with parliament approving a bill that tightens asylum rules.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who praised Gassama’s heroism and said the city will support his effort to settle in France, is caught in a bitter battle with the French Interior Minister over how best to respond to the unrelenting arrival of homeless newcomers — with humanity or muscle.

Police are preparing to dismantle makeshift camps holding close to 2,500 refugees in the French capital. Two refugees drowned this month in canals that run beside some of the places in Paris where tent cities have gone up, and fights at camps have led to injuries, increasing the pressure on public officials to act.

A burgeoning encampment in far northeast Paris, on a canal used by joggers and cyclists, is the focal point of the debate pitting French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb against Hidalgo, who are at odds over how to treat refugees and find a lasting solution.

France’s quandary is shared by other European nations seeking to manage the stream of new arrivals, which has ebbed since the mass Syrian refugee crisis a few years ago but remains a steady challenge.

Expressing “regret” at Hidalgo’s refusal to take the necessary steps to allow police to evacuate the migrants, Collomb said he had no choice but to order the removal of the estimated 1,400 people living at the largest camp and others around Paris. His order is expected to be carried out in the coming days.

The interior minister made it clear in a statement that closing the improved camps would result in some refugees being expelled from France. The mayor and aid groups want the people at the camps to be moved to shelters and given help, fearing the evacuations will result in migrants simply being dispersed or summarily deported.

Paris police have already cleared out some 28,000 migrants from Paris camps in the past three years, but the arrivals haven’t slowed.

Collomb is behind a tough immigration bill that has attracted criticism for Macron. However, the state-appointed but independent human rights champion tried to put the brakes on a quick clearing of the camps.

Defender of Rights Jacques Toubon warned that authorities must find “real alternative solutions for shelter” and guarantee access to doctors before any evacuation. In a statement, he said that “short-term goals must not override the respect for the fundamental rights of exiles.”

Hundreds of small tents are closely packed under bridges on the side of a canal in far northeastern Paris, beside a shopping centre, banks and other businesses. The tents, filled mainly with African migrants, hold stories of horrific stays in Libya, desperate boat trips across the Mediterranean, frozen journeys on foot through the Alps — and visions of the good life that fuels the dreams of all migrants.

Joggers, cyclists and those working in the area pass in the narrow space available, as river shuttles and barges ply the canal’s waters. The surrealistic scene is repeated along the Canal Saint-Martin, a scenic stretch popular with tourists in the heart of Paris where an estimated 450 migrants, many Afghan, are camped. “It’s not the best vision from the office window,” said Kevin Sadoun, who works at a major bank with offices around the largest encampment, known as the “Millenaire” after the shopping centre overlooking the tents. “We see people pee, defecate … But they have no choice,” he said. There are few portable toilets and urinals, and just one set of spigots where migrants wash clothes.

A petition launched last week, signed by leading humanitarian groups, including Unicef France and the French Red Cross, seeks “urgent shelter” for the population, denouncing an affront to basic human rights. It warns that “dramas are inevitable” given the deteriorating hygiene and psychological health among some within the camps.

The mayor of Paris’ 19th district, where the largest camp is located, is also opposed to a police evacuation, in part because that camp, like the one at Canal Saint-Martin, is beside the water, making an intervention dangerous.

“The subject is not a confrontation between Hidalgo and Collomb … It’s how a country like France can accept that people, mostly potential asylum seekers, can find themselves in this undignified, dangerous and hyper-insecure situation,” Francois Dagnaud told France Bleu radio.

Naby Sylla, a 20-year-old Guinean, is among migrants who crossed into France via the Alps, after travelling by raft from Libya to Italy. He left Italy, he said, after being twice attacked, once with a bottle and needing hospital treatment. “In Africa, we thought that Europe was a place of welcome. Unfortunately, we don’t find that,” he said.

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