PARIS – In the shadow of the famed Sacre Coeur basilica, hundreds of migrants have poured into a makeshift tent camp on a bridge over Eurostar train tracks to Britain — the country that many see as a cherished final destination.
After many agonizing journeys, the mostly East African migrants find themselves in limbo. Local leaders, fed up with the sordid eyesore looming over Gare du Nord train station, are calling for the migrants to be moved as early as next month to more decent shelter. But trapped between French bureaucracy and politics, the bridge-dwellers simply have nowhere else to go.
On site, many migrants say this was not the Europe they expected. They lament the loud rumble of subway trains, the stench of urine and how "even in Africa" they didn't have to sleep outdoors. They say they were better fed, clothed and housed in countries like Italy — the main European landing point after a perilous Mediterranean crossing — which is far more burdened by the migrant inflows than France.
Few know who provided the tents; the city set up portable toilets, and municipal crews sweep and power-spray the area regularly. Some migrants say they wash in public showers. They idly smoke cigarettes, hang jeans to dry on the rail of a nearby park or brush their teeth and spit into a trash-strewn ditch near a bridge pillar. Hulking buses sit parked across the street, waiting to pick up tourists seeing Paris' sites.
Almaz Tekeste says she has lived in the camp for two months while waiting for her asylum application to be processed. The 45-year-old native of Asmara, Eritrea says she fled after being jailed at home last year over her Pentecostal religious beliefs. One of the few women in the camp, she says male migrants on two occasions invaded her tent "looking for sex." She cried, yelled, and then some "good men" intervened, causing the intruders to flee.
France, like many other rich countries, has faced a dilemma in the burgeoning global flow of migrants fleeing war, poverty or persecution — from Rohingya Muslims drifting in the Straits of Malacca to Africans drowning in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe.
In a densely populated city, where large unoccupied spaces are rare, the football field-sized patch near Paris' La Chapelle metro station has seen various waves of migration over the years, including Kurds and Afghans. In the last year, it's been migrants from Horn of Africa traveling via Sudan and Libya on an often-perilous journey to Europe. Many stay a few days, some for months.
The camp has swollen in the last several weeks: Authorities cite either the flow from a recent surge of crossings to Italy, or a retreat by those expelled by police from Calais, the French city on the English Channel seen by many migrants as a springboard into Britain.
Remi Feraud, who heads the 10th arrondissement, or district, of Paris, said authorities have quietly tried for months to find a better place for the migrants. But after the recent swell, he and other local leaders want to step up the pace and are breaking their silence — hoping to press the government of President Francois Hollande, a fellow Socialist, into finding a solution.
Feraud said he regretted not going public earlier about the migrants' plight.
"Evacuating them without re-housing them gives way to a cat-and-mouse game," he said in an interview at Paris city hall. He said his constituents who live near the site are tolerant, but added: "People aren't stupid. They know that if the camp is dismantled and there's no lodging, it will reconstitute in one form or another in the same neighborhood."
The Interior Ministry is working to resolve the issue, and Paris police are taking a wait-and-see approach, officials said.
France Terre d'Asile, an advocacy group for asylum-seekers, has estimated about 340 migrants are at the camp, mainly from Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia — some packed three or four to a tent. Group director-general Pierre Henry said about a third are eligible for asylum status, while the others were passing through on way to places like Germany, the Nordic countries or Britain.
"It's a question of dignity: You can't leave people in such conditions," Henry said, criticizing the slow response by authorities. "It would have been much easier to deal with six months ago."