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Dozens of sleeping bags line the walls of a paved square, somewhere in the heart of Paris. The sleeping men have all but vanished inside their bedrolls — only a few heads emerge here and there. It is mid-December, and the temperature is just a few degrees above freezing.
A few months after several high-profile evacuations of makeshift refugee camps in Paris, hundreds of migrants are bracing to spend the winter months sleeping rough on the streets of the French capital.
Many of those sleeping under the stone arches of Raoul Follereau square — steps away from the Gare de l'Est railway station, in the city's 10th Arrondissement — are from Afghanistan. Surrounded by six or eight-story high residential buildings, the square has long served as a shelter for homeless migrants because it is seldom busy and its arches provide much-needed protection from the elements.
But in the last few months, there has been a sharp rise in the number of migrants who rely on the square for nighttime shelter.
Every morning around 6am, the police show up to awaken migrants and order them off the square. The migrants return every day at nightfall, carefully laying out their sleeping bags and blankets to shield themselves from the cold.
Many of them are in transit, hoping their stay under the arches will be short-lived. Mohammadi, a 21-year-old Afghan from the province of Kapisa, north of Kabul, told VICE News he had started camping on the square a few days ago. Mohammadi looks older than his years. "People say I look 30," he said in impeccable English. "It's because I've lived through some hard times."
Mohammadi first came to Europe when he was 15. Arriving in the UK in 2009, he was placed with a foster family, who fed him and sent him to school. When he turned 18, the government "deported" him back to Afghanistan, he said.
"When I got home and saw the situation there, how my family and friends were living, I couldn't stay. I decided to leave again," said the young man, who has three sisters and four brothers. "There is a war on in Afghanistan. There is fighting every die. People die every day." Mohammadi is hoping to return to England in the near future.
A few steps away, another migrant tells us in French that he would like to return to Switzerland, where he lived from 2009 to 2014 — first in a migrant center, and then in his own apartment. He too was eventually deported.
Other migrants tell us they have already filed their asylum claims, or are waiting to meet with volunteers from refugee advocacy group France Terre d'Asile (France Land of Asylum) who will help them fill out the forms.
"The Guy With the Refugees"
Compared to other EU states, France receives relatively few asylum claims from Afghan refugees. According to The French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA) 472 Afghan refugees filed asylum claims in France in 2014 — 17 percent more than in 2013. In 2014, Afghans were the second-largest group of asylum-seekers in the EU after Syrians.
"Many of the asylum claims reflect the decline of the security situation, with all the consequences [of that decline], including the fear of persecution and severe threats," OFPRA said in its 2014 annual report. Very few of the migrants currently sleeping on Raoul Follereau square are willing to say why they fled their home country, but several implied that they had been persecuted.
On Wednesday, volunteers from the Sciences Po Refugee Help group — an organization launched this year by students at the Paris university — were on the square, distributing aid to migrants. John Bingham, 21, has been visiting the migrants for a couple of months. On his way to the square, he stops off at a nearby bakery to pick up the day's unsold bread. "Good evening, it's the guy with the refugees," he yells through the store's metal gate. The baker raises the gate and silently hands him a bag.
The volunteers — some of whom know Farsi, one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan — get a warm welcome. Aside from distributing food and warm clothing, the volunteers also help migrants get to the drop-in clinic at Saint-Louis hospital. Two migrants from Pakistan — the only Pakistani refugees we met — are hoping to see a doctor in the morning. One of them explained that he was having trouble walking "because of the cold."
"It's scandalous," said John, who is studying political sociology at Sciences Po. "People have been camping out here for seven or eight years, but never on this scale."
An Unresolved Situation
Some of the local residents have not taken too kindly to dozens of migrants sleeping on the square each night. John told us that one night, a neighbor threw water at migrants from his window. "I was there, distributing blankets under the arches," he told VICE News. "The man threw water at us, yelling 'Get the hell out!'"
Locals attended a meeting back in July to discuss the "situation of exiled people in the neighborhood." According to the official minutes of the meeting, locals agreed "unanimously that the government is failing in its duty to house this people in need."
But the use of the square by homeless migrants is hardly a new phenomenon. According to the local neighborhood council that met in July, migrants started to settle around Gare de l'Est as early as 2004 — two years after the closure of the infamous Sangatte camp, a Calais warehouse that operated as a refugee camp from 1999 to 2002.
In 2009, city hall banned migrants from camping out at Villemin Garden, a park that is adjacent to the square. While they may have shifted their makeshift dormitory to the nearby arches, migrants still congregate in the gardens during the day to find some rest on the public benches and use the restrooms.
In July, authorities asked the local branch of city hall to "organize a round table with as many local actors as possible, including activists and witnesses who can speak to the situation on the ground, in order to find solutions together." Residents also circulated their own petition for a meeting.
Speaking to VICE News, local officials confirmed that "a roundtable on the living conditions of migrants on Raoul Follereau square" had been scheduled for December 17. The meeting will not be open to the public, but a number of migrant advocacy groups — including Sciences Po Refugee Help and France Terre d'Asile — have been invited. Dominique Versini, the deputy mayor in charge of solidarity and the fight against exclusion, will also be in attendance.
In the meantime, migrants have been waiting out the cold in the office CAMRES, a small local charity, whose office is just a few streets away. Every morning, CAMRES hands out hot drinks. Twice a week, it offers breakfast, legal assistance and workshops.
'All the Afghans who have passed through Paris have been here.'
"Everyone, without distinction, is welcome here, but I do think that all the Afghans who have passed through Paris have been here. There are many here right now," said Yannick Chignier, one of the managers of CAMRES. "Those who share a nationality have a tendency to stick together," he noted, adding that one of the group's social workers had learned Farsi in order to communicate with the organization's Afghan clients.
Visiting the CAMRES offices Thursday, we bumped into Mohammadi. After spending the night under the arches, in the freezing cold, he was here to charge his phone. "I tried to leave for Calais this morning, but the police stopped me at the station. It's the second time," he said, a look of desperation in his eyes. "I'd like to return to the UK because all my friends are there. But now I don't really know what to do."
The previous night, a group of volunteers had tried to talk him out of boarding a train for Calais at the nearby Gare du Nord, explaining that the situation in the northern French port was highly tense and that the crossing to England was perilous. "I know, but I can't keep on sleeping in the streets like this," he replied.
Follow Lucie Aubourg on Twitter : @LucieAbrg
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