PARIS — Walking home one night several years ago in a suburb of Paris, Raphaël Marre was horrified to see a group of migrants and asylum-seekers sleeping on the street outside his home.
Why wasn’t the government housing them? he wondered. After witnessing the same scene for several weeks, he and his wife decided to do it themselves, signing up with a nonprofit that links migrants with people in the Paris region willing to open up their homes for a few nights.
“That was a triggering moment,” Marre said. “We thought, ‘This can’t be happening, we have to do something.’”
Five years after a migrant crisis that convulsed Europe, France is still struggling to accommodate the thousands of people who have applied for asylum in France. And Marre is still welcoming them into his home.
The government acknowledges that it has been slow to find accommodation for asylum-seekers, and says it plans to add more places in the coming year. But groups like Utopia 56, the nonprofit that Marre signed up with, say that the added accommodation is not enough and that the government is dragging its heels on providing housing to deter more people from coming to France at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is growing.
“France wants to stigmatize this population by saying, ‘You have nothing to do here, you are not refugees,’” said Yann Manzi, a founder of Utopia 56. “This is purposely done. It’s not that we don’t have room, but it is that we want to give a clear message: ‘Don’t come anymore.’”
The government, for its part, says it is doing its best in a tough situation. Didier Leschi, director of the French Office of Immigration and Integration, said France was one of the few European countries to offer emergency accommodation to everyone without conditions and “there have never been as many asylum-seekers in France as there are today.”
Leschi said only 55% of the 138,000 current asylum applicants were in state-funded housing. The government also funds another housing program that is open to all, without any conditions or residency requirements, but demand, again, far exceeds supply.
Government housing for migrants varies greatly across the European Union. Germany manages to house most with a combination of subsidized rentals and offering spaces in state-run shelters. Italy provides limited public and temporary housing for tens of thousands of asylum-seekers, but does not provide emergency accommodation to migrants who have been refused asylum.
In France, many of the migrants who cannot find a place to stay in the Paris area flock to the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, the city hall, where volunteers for Utopia 56 help them find a temporary shelter.
A family from the Ivory Coast — Losseni Sanogo; his wife, Assata; and their daughter, Korotoum — were in luck on a recent evening, if only for a short while. They were going to be connected with Marre.
“We’ll provide you with accommodation,” Clotilde Fournial, a Utopia 56 volunteer, told the family, who had spent the past few nights sleeping on the floor of a train station. “But it will only be for tonight.”
Less than two hours later, the family was on its way to a southeastern suburb of Paris to stay with Marre.
Utopia 56’s private housing initiative began in 2018, when France, and much of Europe, was facing a large influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, driven from their homes by war and economic deprivation.
The numbers of migrants coming to Europe has slowed in the past year, but the program is still in place, partly because of the government’s ever-growing backlog of asylum cases.
Camille Le Coz, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said a shortage of accommodation was compounded by the large number of people that needed help — some with extended asylum processes, others with nowhere else to go once their cases have been resolved, and those who have been denied asylum and refuse to leave.
In December, the government introduced an initiative that would create 4,500 new spaces in 2021. However, it is “still far from enough to meet the needs,” Le Coz said.
France’s struggle to accommodate migrants and asylum-seekers has become particularly conspicuous in the streets of the Paris region. In what has become a seemingly never-ending cycle, police regularly clear out hundreds of migrants and raze their tents and shacks, often offering them no alternative but to move somewhere else.
Utopia 56 relies on a network of volunteers, private citizens, parishes and private companies that have sheltered nearly 3,000 people during the pandemic.
Xavier Lachaume, 31, and his wife have hosted eight families in their apartment in Saint-Denis, a northern Paris suburb, since January. For now, visitors stay in their spare bedroom for a couple of nights, which they plan to turn into a room for a baby they expect in the coming months.
For Lachaume, who works for the economy ministry, the effort by private citizens is a short-term solution for a long-lasting crisis.
“We shouldn’t have to do this; it should be the state,” Lachaume said.
France registered nearly 82,000 asylum applications in 2020, according to Eurostat, Europe’s statistics agency. First-time applicants declined more than 40% from 2019, a drop partly attributed to the coronavirus. But Manzi predicts another surge once the pandemic passes.