France welcomes its first refugees

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The Cergy-Pontoise leisure park, in Val-d’Oise, in the north of France, has become a refugee reception centre. The garden is the scene of a carefree moment: a young girl is learning to roller skate. Inside the building, men are holding discussions, others are eating a warm meal. The faces are visibly tired, but lit up with smiles. For all of them, it is the end of a terrible flight.

These 96 refugees, including 15 children, are part of the 1,000 refugees, exclusively from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, to progressively leave Munich, Germany, for France over the coming weeks.

They are the first to be taken in by France since François Hollande announced plans to welcome 24,000 refugees within two years, in addition to the 7,000 promised in July.

“It is a crisis, it is drastic, it is serious, it can be brought under control,” said the French president, responding to the appeals of the European Commission. The European body, which is to grant €6,000 (US$ 6,800) per refugee, called on EU member states to come to an agreement on taking in 120,000 refugees between them.

Serhan, Guali and their three daughters are from Homs, in Syria. They fled the war three weeks ago and are now living in a room at the leisure park.

Although the ordeal of their flight and the journey is now behind them, the memories are still vivid. “We walked for days,” explains Serhan, an anaesthetist. “It was a dangerous journey, especially when we spent three hours at sea on a boat carrying 45 people.”

The asylum seekers have been able to complete the initial paperwork at the centre.

They have received documentation authorising their stay on French territory, pending a response from the OFPRA, the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People. “People are kind here. I hope we’ll be able to stay and that we’ll have a better future,” confides Serhan, sharing his hopes that his daughters will receive an education, that he will find a job, and they will learn French quickly.

“It all happened very fast,” recounts Sylvain De Smet, president of the leisure park. The state called on our services and four days later the refugees were here.”
The refugees should stay in Cergy for a maximum of eight weeks: “Little by little, things are falling into place. The idea is that they shouldn’t have to go anywhere to sort out the paperwork or to enrol their children for school. They are provided with meals and the French classes are going to start soon.”

Rami, an 18-year-old literature student, dreamt of living in Germany or Sweden: “In Munich, I was told I could come to France. I said yes. It’s an opportunity.” Originally from Damascus, he reached Cergy with his older brother. He holds out his smartphone, showing the photos taken just before his departure from Syria: Rami hugging his little sister one last time, his mother, surrounded by her two sons, crying. Like all the other refugees, he called his family on arriving in Cergy to let them know he was safe and well. “I am sad, but we had to leave the war. I want to finish my studies and live in peace,” he says, his eyes red. “I was afraid during the journey, but I had to leave for the sake of my future.”

A network of support towns

Pending the opening of regional platforms, the thousands of refugees arriving in France over the next few months will go through reception centres in the Paris Region. A total of 26 sites have been identified. In addition to Cergy, the towns of Champagne-sur-Seine and Bonnelles have been requisitioned.

For the next step in their journey, a network of support towns and cities has been set up on the initiative of the Socialist Party (PS). Paris, Rennes, Strasbourg, Grenoble, Nantes, a total of 622 mayors have expressed their willingness to welcome refugees.

To help them, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has pledged to create new accommodation for refugees. “We have to manage three timeframes all at once,” explains Kléber Arouh, the prefect appointed as national coordinator of the refugee operation. At the same time as handling their immediate reception, we have to think about what comes next, getting the migrants who soon become refugees into long-term housing.”

The mayor of Lille has announced the creation of a website through which people can offer beds, mattresses, apartments or rooms.

“The values of solidarity had been forgotten,” Olivier Bianchi, mayor of Clermont-Ferrand, in Auvergne, which is about to receive seven Syrian families, tells Equal Times. “We have checked how many places are available in vacant housing and have already arranged places in the schools. We are ready.”

When asked if the government was too slow in reacting to the situation, Olivier Bianchi counters: “I was already contacted in July. The state was making advance preparations but the phenomenon widened, leading to this collective consciousness.” The mayor talks about the tradition of solidarity in the region, which is going to receive 200 families and “has already welcomed Kurds and Kosovars in the past”.

A school saved and four jobs created

Some French local authorities did not wait to be asked and were quick to take the initiative. Joigny, Pouilly-en-Auxois, Eymoutiers and Peyrelevade have been lodging asylum seekers for several months already.

In Peyrelevade, the former retirement home was converted into a reception centre for asylum seekers (CADA). It has been home to 60 people of 11 different nationalities since 1 April.

“It is very positive. We have found a use for the building, we have created four jobs and one class at the school has been saved,” Pierre Coutaud, the mayor of this Correzian village of 800 inhabitants, tells Equal Times. “For the small villages that are dying, it is a great opportunity because the refugees revitalise the area, and everything is going very well with the locals.”

The local authorities are not the only ones taking action to deal with the emergency. Accommodation, food donations, help with paperwork: the number of citizens’ initiatives has multiplied.

The CALM (Comme À La Maison - just like home) initiative, set up by the SINGA association, connects refugees – people whose asylum request has been accepted – and individuals wanting to provide them with accommodation. The association received 1,300 offers of help within just a few days. “There is a real awakening in society,” enthuses Nathanaël Molle, one of the founders of the project. “Because is it not just about accommodation, it also provides an opportunity for integration and developing a social and professional network.”

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, almost 2 million Syrian refugees are currently living in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon, and 630,000 in Jordan: in total, approximately 4 million Syrians have fled their country.

On Wednesday 23 September, EU summit leaders agreedto provide “at least” an extra €1 billion for the UN’s refugee and food programmes in the region in and around Syria. By majority vote and over protests from some East European members, they adopted a mandatory plan to resettle 120,000 refugees among the EU28. But they also agreed to strengthen the EU’s external borders, anticipating that the crisis is far from over.