When migrants fall through the cracks in France, volunteers step in

It was in 2018, right after two dilapidated buildings had collapsed in her adopted city of Marseille. Elodie Marie was wandering around her neighborhood, contemplating the thousands who had subsequently been displaced, and the lack of housing for poor people, when she spotted a small group of men on the street.

“They had a desperate look on their faces,” says Ms. Marie. “I asked them what they were doing there, and they said, ‘We don’t have anywhere to sleep.’”

The group of African migrants had just arrived from Italy when the building collapses forced them onto the street. Ms. Marie told two of them, 20-somethings from Gambia, they could stay at her place that night. She locked her bedroom door, wondering if she were crazy, and hoped for the best.

One slept on her couch for a month, the other for 10. They helped cook meals; she helped them navigate French bureaucracy as they applied for asylum. Two years later, she still speaks to them regularly.

“I finally saw the reality [of what it meant to be a migrant],” she says. “It was like a slap in the face.”

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Since the 2015 surge, when more than 1 million people arrived on the European continent and paralyzed governments, France has seen a consistent uptick in the number of asylum-seekers. In 2015, about 71,000 people applied for asylum and in 2019, over 170,000. The increase has put pressure on the government to meet demands for housing and jobs, and effectively integrate new arrivals.

But despite the values it initially set out to uphold, the government hasn’t been able to keep up with the realities needed to successfully welcome the continuing influx. And so a large swath of French society, including Ms. Marie, has stepped into the gaps. Around 38% of the French population is estimated to be involved in volunteerism of some kind.

“We’re seeing an increase in demands for asylum as well as an increase in difficulties to obtain housing, food, and documentation,” says Héloïse Mary, the president of BAAM, a Paris-based nonprofit that aids migrants. “But we’re also seeing that the commitment of volunteers has not stopped. That’s the positive side in all this.”

France’s migration problem

The 2015 migrant crisis saw the largest wave of people seeking asylum on European soil since the Schengen Agreement in 1985. European Union member states, Switzerland, and Norway registered a record 1.3 million asylum applications that year, with Germany, Hungary, and Sweden receiving the highest numbers.

But while France was one of the leading destinations for asylum-seekers between 2000 and 2010, it fell short of public expectation in 2015, receiving roughly the same amount of applications as in previous years. According to a 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center, 70% of French people disapproved of the EU’s handling of the refugee issue.

The EU member states remain divided over how to reform the asylum system across the bloc. But even as that debate continues, the French government has recognized its own stagnating immigration system, calling it neither satisfactory nor sustainable. Migrant camps have continued to form in and around Paris in recent years, despite repeated evacuations. In 2017, France received more than 100,000 asylum applications, putting pressure on the country’s already strained accommodation system. That same year, French President Emmanuel Macron promised that no one would be left sleeping on the streets by the end of the year.

But many French nonprofits say the government hasn’t been concrete enough in its objectives, and that administrative and housing hurdles have only increased in recent years.

The dismantling of migrant camps, like the massive Jungle in Calais in 2016, has left thousands displaced, and as of 2019, one out of every two asylum-seekers in France were homeless. On Sept. 1, more than 200 families camped out in front of the Paris city hall, in cooperation with nonprofit Utopia56, to call attention to the lack of housing for migrants.

Meanwhile, local prefectures have been so bogged down by demand that many people looking to apply for work or asylum visas can’t even get an appointment, leaving no paper trail for their efforts. For those unable to speak French, the challenges are amplified.

Nonprofits like BAAM and La Cimade have been essential in picking up the slack where French bureaucracy has fallen short. In addition to offering legal aid, they provide French classes and help in finding housing. This kind of support is essential, they say – especially because, for all the money the government spends on migrants, state services are so overwhelmed that many migrants are forced to leave.

“The idea is that you should integrate first and then we’ll help you,” says Sarah Belaisch, director of national agenda at La Cimade. “What we’re trying to show is that doing this is extremely difficult if you’re undocumented.”

“There are people who need help”

Amid a raging COVID-19 pandemic, Europe must still tend to managing migration, whether it concerns economic migrants or asylum-seekers. France and Britain have been at odds in recent months, as the British government has renewed its calls to make the Channel crossing between the two countries nonviable. No one knows exactly how Brexit will affect future migration regulations.

But one upside of the pandemic has been more creative thinking and cooperation between nonprofits, local businesses, and the government. Across France, hotels have opened their rooms – left empty by the drop in tourism – to those without housing. Many nonprofits have continued to carry out their activities, even if much of their volunteer work is face-to-face and comes with a certain amount of risk.

“There would be no French classes for asylum-seekers, no free legal aid,” says Ms. Mary, the president of BAAM, “if nonprofits weren’t doing something about it.”

In order for nonprofits to function fully, of course, it takes interest from the community. Marion Jagu of Paris says she has always felt France should be doing more for migrants, and that’s why she volunteered with BAAM in 2017 to be paired up with someone in need of language and legal help.

Three years later, Ms. Jagu still meets for dinner every Friday with Abdo, a Sudanese asylum-seeker who has since received his French nationality. Even during France’s COVID-19 lockdown, they upheld their end-of-the-week ritual – over Zoom. He’s become like family, meeting her parents and attending her wedding.

“There are people who need help and [in France] we have the means to help them,” says Ms. Jagu. “Everyone deserves to be welcomed with dignity.”


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