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Migrants evacuated from Stalingrad camp, Paris: dioceses and parishes on the frontline of reception

France faces the migrant challenge. After the evacuation of the “Calais jungle” last week it was the turn of Paris, more precisely, of Stalingrad, home to the largest makeshift migrant camp in the French capital. Charles Gazeau, delegate of the Vicariate for solidarity, drew an outline of the situation and of the ongoing efforts of parishes and associations. As many as 2 114 migrants have found hospitality in dioceses across France.

The pattern recurs as if scripted. The “evacuation” takes place in the early hours of the morning. Migrants are invited to take all their possessions. Sleeping bags in one hand; suitcases, trolleys or rucksacks in the other, they line up waiting for the bus that will bring them to destinations established by the government. It all occurs under the watchful eyes of law enforcement officers.

France facing the migrant challenge. After the clearing of the “Calais jungle”, last week it was the turn of Paris, more precisely of Stalingrad, home to the largest makeshift migrant camp in the French capital, set up under the elevated metro station of Stalingrad in the north-eastern part of the city, between Avenue de Flandres and Boulevard de la Chapelle, in the 19th arrondissement. Clearing operations involved the deployment of 600 policemen in riot gear. A total of over three thousand migrants were evacuated. The first bus arrived at 6.10, out of a total of 80 buses.

Charles Gazeau is the Vicariate’s delegate for solidarity in the diocese of Paris. He closely flowed the entire operation. “It proceeded generally well”, he said. “Clearing operations were carried out in the respect of human dignity. Everything had been planned ahead, from the reception centres to the means of transport.” A few months ago the camp – renamed “jungle” – of Stalingrad was crowded with migrants following the news on the upcoming clearing of the Calais refugee camp. The delegate of Paris’ diocese said the “people” of Stalingrad consist mainly of migrants from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria. There are very few Syrians, as they avail themselves of different access networks.

They arrive following the directions of the “passeurs”, the human traffickers.

The address of “Stalingrad” is passed on “from one group to the next”: it’s one of the first places of arrival communicated to migrants travelling from Italy and Greece. Some of them consider “France as their final destination, Paris in particular, so they file asylum-requests once they’re here.” For others, especially after the closing of Calais’ refugee-camp, Stalingrad is a stopover of the journey to the UK, in fact, the BBC wrote: if the “lid” was Calais, the “bottleneck” was Stalingrad.

Last week’s evacuation was actually the third to date.

“There are constant comings and goings”, said Gazeau, who pointed out that migrants have been arriving in increasing numbers over the past years. For this reason, and most of all, in order to avoid the creation of more camps for the “stagnation” of migrants in Paris, or, worse still, to avoid their arrival in the city without a final destination, the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo announced plans to create a “permanent reception centre” for migrants in a disused train station near Porte de la Chapelle. The centre can accommodate up to 400 people – said the diocesan delegate – but they will be allowed to stay only from 5 to 15 days to ensure the fluidity of arrivals, the identification of other destinations, and new departures.”

The diocese of Paris is in the frontline of reception. Soon after Pope Francis’ appeal, in September 2015, a “platform” was created to coordinate the activity of parishes and associations providing support to migrants. Various initiatives have been carried out so far:

There are those who help migrants on the streets with a constant presence in places with the highest proportion of migrants

as Stalingrad, where the Notre Dame des Foyers parish is actively involved, and in Porte de Saint-Ouen thanks to the parish of Saint-Joseph des Epinettes. There are also two accommodation centres: Mie de Pain, in the parish of Sainte-Rosalie, and the Centre of La Rochefoucauld. The “Tables Ouvertes” (open tables) set up in parishes, offer warm meals and fraternal meeting points, while the initiative “Pieds au sec” (dry feet) distributes boots and shoes “to offer migrants better living conditions, especially ahead of the winter months.” The Pastoral Care of Migrants of the French Bishops’ Conference estimated that 2 114 migrants have been given hospitality so far in dioceses across France.

Most housing facilities belong to private individuals or are the property of parishes and religious congregations. Migrant-reception initiatives are mostly carried out with the support of prefectures and local councils. However, it requires a huge effort “that is not seen”, said Charles Gazeau. Dioceses seek to raise public awareness on this problem, providing information on the tragic situations migrants are fleeing from and on their living conditions after their arrival in our Country. It’s a demanding commitment that we carry out in parishes and with young people in particular, sharing this information in schools. Because unless people are informed, nothing will happen.”

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