Hundreds of French police have begun clearing more than 1,000 migrants and refugees from a makeshift camp in northern Paris, where they had been sleeping rough in squalid conditions for months.
Police arrived at the site near Porte de La Chapelle before 6am local time (0500 GMT) on Thursday, after the country’s centrist government set out Emmanuel Macron’s tougher stance on immigration this week and vowed to clear the camps.
Within an hour the first buses had departed to take people temporarily to gyms and requisitioned buildings in the Paris region while immigration authorities check their status. Women and children were first in the queues, while men waited calmly to leave, some clutching bags of few belongings.
More than 3,000 people had been sleeping on pavements and under bridges and canals in northern Paris and Seine-Saint-Denis, with scant access to running water and no showers. Many had complained of rats, and charities had warned of appalling sanitary conditions.
Some of those queuing for buses had refugee status but had not been able to find permanent accommodation. One such man from Sudan told France Info radio: “It is awful. I sleep outside, sometimes I eat, sometimes I don’t.” He said he expected to be taken to a makeshift shelter in a gymnasium. “But I really need a proper home, to get some training, to work. I want to live.”
The problem of makeshift camps for migrants and asylum seekers forming on the streets of northern Paris is not new. There have been more than 30 clearances in the capital over the last four years, but each time hundreds more people end up back on the streets shortly after.
Local politicians have said the problem is that the state does not offer proper accommodation and facilities for asylum seekers who are being processed.
The Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has regularly accused Macron’s government of failing to provide help for the large number of people sleeping rough in the city. She said she had been given assurances from state authorities that those being evicted on Thursday would be found permanent accommodation.
Hidalgo, observing the police clearance, said: “At last today a message is being sent that we have to have organised, dignified, humanitarian solutions.” She said it also sent a message to residents of the area that “you have not been abandoned”.
In a sign of the state’s determination to stop people returning to sleep rough in the same part of the city, Michel Cadot, the head of Paris’s police force, said there would be a permanent police presence there “to stop these camps reforming. That is the new element compared to all the measures taken in the past,” he said.
He described the evacuation of the camps as allowing the state to “take back the public space”. Police authorities described it as a “humanitarian” operation to take people to shelter.
Other camps in northern Paris will be evacuated in the coming days.