Aid groups warn of growing risks as Paris migrant camps swell

Migrant encampments on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris. A young Afghan drowned in the canal last week. (Reuters)
Updated 17 May 2018
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Aid groups warn of growing risks as Paris migrant camps swell

  • Volunteers are grappling with an outbreak of respiratory and skin conditions such as scabies in the squalid, tightly packed camps.
  • Aid groups say the camps have attracted smugglers from the port city of Calais, offering them a chance to reach Britain.

PARIS: Aid groups working at two large migrant camps that have sprung up in Paris called on authorities Thursday to address deteriorating conditions, which they say could lead to security and health risks.
Around 1,600 migrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, have constructed makeshift shelters under an overpass in the northern Villette area — one of the largest camps in the French capital since the surge in arrivals to Europe beginning in 2015.
An additional 600 people, mainly Afghans, are sleeping in a tent city along the Canal Saint-Martin.
“The situation is increasingly alarming,” Louis Barda of Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) said this week, calling the Villette camp “unlike any we’ve ever seen in Paris.”
While two doctors nearby were treating patients as others washed their clothes in the nearby canal, a young man suddenly began convulsing, AFP witnessed on a visit to the camp.
The seizures stopped a few minutes later, but the man was muttering gibberish with a panicked look on his face. He refused to go along with first responders for treatment.
“He probably took some drugs,” Barda said, adding that he and his colleagues had noted “more and more addictions” at the site.
Tensions “have clearly gotten worse over the past two weeks,” he said, citing people who have needed treatment “after being hit with iron bars, people with gaping wounds, knife cuts.”
On Sunday a Sudanese man was seriously injured during a fight, while a young Afghan drowned in the Canal Saint-Martin last week.
Another migrant’s body was also fished out of the canal near the “Millenaire” camp at La Villette.
Meanwhile volunteers are grappling with an outbreak of respiratory and skin conditions such as scabies in the squalid, tightly packed camps.
“The security and health of the people living in these camps, but also of members of aid associations and local residents, are no longer assured,” according to a petition signed by more than 30 aid groups, released Thursday.
“I’ve been here about two weeks,” said Ahmad at the Millenaire camp. “It’s so difficult, at night it’s so cold, no good food, no washing — it’s a terrible time.”
“Three or two days ago I saw one person, someone hit him with a knife in the stomach,” he said.
Aid groups say the camps have attracted smugglers from the port city of Calais, offering them a chance to reach Britain — where many migrants believe it would be easier to find work and potentially asylum.
But “if you want go to England you have to pay €1,000 ($1,180). It’s too expensive!” said Beniam, a 26-year-old Eritrean, who says he prefers France because of its “schools and jobs.”
“Their days are reduced to finding food, toothpaste or soap, to washing their clothes. They’re stuck in these camps and unable to imagine anything else,” said Alix of the NGO Utopia 56, declining to give her full name.
“What’s happening here is also because the state isn’t accepting its responsibilities, so citizens and associations have to pick up the slack,” she said.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has called on the government of President Emmanuel Macron to find shelter for the migrants, only to be told that unless she wants government forces to evacuate the site, the problem is hers.
The impasse has led to a series of calls for urgent action, with senior Paris priest Benoist de Sinety denouncing “a total absence of humanity.”
“If you let the camp get bigger, you’re leaving them exposed to smugglers,” said Barda of Medecins du Monde.
“They’ll do their deals and maintain the trafficking, fueling all the tensions we’re seeing today.”


Amid wall debate, pope visits Panama with migration in mind

Updated 48 min 55 sec ago
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Amid wall debate, pope visits Panama with migration in mind

  • The pope is expected to urge young people to create their own opportunities
  • Francis’ trip, the first in a year packed with foreign travel, comes at a critical moment in the papacy

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis is looking to leave the sex abuse scandal buffeting his papacy behind as he heads to Central America amid a standoff over President Donald Trump’s promised wall at the US-Mexico border and a new caravan of migrants heading north.
History’s first Latin American pope, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, has made the plight of migrants and refugees a cornerstone of his papacy. He is also expected to offer words of encouragement to young people gathered in Panama for World Youth Day, the church’s once-every-three-year pep rally that aims to invigorate the next generation of Catholics in their faith.
Panama Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa said Francis’ message is likely to resonate with young Central Americans who see their only future free of violence and poverty in migrating to the US — “young people who often fall into the hands of drug traffickers and so many other realities that our young people face.”
The pope is expected to urge young people to create their own opportunities, while calling on governments do their share as well.
The visit is taking place as the US government remains partly shut down in a standoff between the Trump administration and Democrats over funding for Trump’s promised border wall.
Francis famously has called for “bridges, not walls.” After celebrating Mass in 2016 on the Mexican side of the US border, he denounced anyone who wants to build a wall to keep out migrants as “not Christian.”
Crowds are expected to be smaller than usual for this World Youth Day — only about 150,000 people had registered as of last week — but thousands more will certainly throng Francis’ main events, which include a vigil and a final Mass on Sunday. The Vatican conceded that the January date doesn’t suit school vacations in Europe or North America, both of which typically send huge numbers of pilgrims to World Youth Day gatherings.
Francis’ trip, the first in a year packed with foreign travel, comes at a critical moment in the papacy as the Catholic hierarchy globally is facing a crisis in credibility for covering up decades of cases of priests molesting young people.
The pope is expected to soon rule on the fate of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the high-powered US archbishop accused of molesting minors and adults. And he is hosting church leaders at the Vatican next month on trying to chart a way forward for the global church.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said there were no plans for Francis to meet with abuse survivors in Panama. Central America hasn’t yet seen the explosion of sex abuse cases that have shattered trust in the Catholic hierarchy in Chile, the US and other parts of the world.
This is the first papal visit to Panama since St. John Paul II was there during a 1983 regional tour that famously included an unscheduled stop at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Romero had been gunned down by right-wing death squads three years earlier, at the start of El Salvador’s civil war, for having spoken out on behalf of the poor.
Salvadoran bishops had hoped Francis would follow suit and make a stop in El Salvador this time to pay his respects at Romero’s tomb since Francis canonized him in October. But the Vatican said a Salvador leg was never really in the cards.
Nevertheless, Gisotti said Romero would likely loom large at the Panama gathering, given he is such a point of reference for young Central American Catholics who grew up learning about his defense of the poor.
The Panama visit is also the first by a pope since the Vatican embassy played a crucial role during the 1989 US invasion of Panama, when dictator Manuel Noriega took refuge there and requested asylum on Christmas Eve after four days on the run trying to escape US troops.
Noriega eventually surrendered, bringing to an end one of the more unusual US military operations: It involved US troops blasting heavy metal and rock music — including Van Halen’s “Panama” — at the embassy to try to force Noriega out.
Noriega, a onetime US ally, eventually served a 17-year drug sentence in the United States. He died in 2017 after his final years were spent in a Panamanian prison for the murder of political opponents during his 1983-89 regime.