Michel Euler/AP/File
Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo gestures as she speaks during a press conference at Paris's town hall, Tuesday. The Paris mayor outlines plans for a new reception center for migrants in the French capital, in an unusual and controversial effort to cope with Europe's migrant crisis.

Paris plans new refugee centers, as the French strive to cope

The mayor of Paris announced plans for two new urban refugee centers, even as an uninhabited refugee camp outside the city was set on fire.

Paris's mayor unveiled plans Tuesday for a migrant camp in the north part of the city to provide short-term housing and care for migrants. The announcement came hours after a fire broke out at an uninhabited camp west of Paris following protests into the night there.

The mixed reception the two camps received show the factions that exist in France due to the migrant crisis, as well as offering a mirror into divisions within Europe as to how migrants should be received. While some Parisians have expressed safety concerns over the camps, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has said it is the responsibility of Paris to be a model for France and the rest of Europe.

"In the past two years, Paris has experienced an unprecedented flow of migrants. Every day, dozens of migrants arrive on our territory," Ms. Hidalgo said in a statement, adding that the city has already accepted around 15,000 refugees, according to CNN. “However, makeshift camps continue to emerge in the public space. They are unhealthy and dangerous, and the migrants are living under shameful conditions. This has also become a source of disturbance for residents in the neighborhood."

First announced in May, the Parisian camp is meant to provide shelter and care services for 400 male migrants, according to Hidalgo. The center will be made of shipping containers, and include showers and toilets, and will also have soccer fields, leisure rooms, and a place where residents can get new clothes, architect Julien Beller told the Associated Press. It will be open by mid-October.

People will be allowed to stay five to 10 days there, where they can receive health and psychological check-ups, as well as counseling. They will then be sent to centers in France where they can request asylum.

Another migrant center for women and families will open at the end of the year in the suburban town of Ivry-sur-Seine, southeast of Paris, according to the Associated Press.

While humanitarian groups and migrants living in makeshift camps in Paris celebrated Hidalgo’s announcement, it came just hours after the suspected arson.

An uninhabited building meant to house 90 migrants burned in the town of Forges-les-Bains southwest of Paris early Tuesday. The night before the fire, authorities held a meeting about the center, which about 100 locals protested. BFM TV reported the protests continued until about 11 p.m.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve promised swift action against any arsonists.

"If this hypothesis is confirmed, everything will be done to quickly arrest those behind this abject act and bring them to justice," he said. 

As in Forges-les-Bains and Paris, there are divided opinions throughout France over the migrant crisis.

"France has traditionally remained conservative on the migrant – and immigrant – question. It has seen a growing populist movement in recent months, primarily led by Marine Le Pen’s National Front party," wrote Colette Davidson in September 2015 for The Christian Science Monitor. 

Even as Ms. Le Pen's popularity grew, however, there was "growing support for stronger humanitarian action across France, which had seen a surge in anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment in recent months," wrote Ms. Davidson. Mayors from a dozen cities agreed to create policies to accept more refugees, and ten cities planned gatherings in support of migrants, including Paris.

But France, like much of Europe, has since been shaken by terrorist attacks such as those in Paris November and in Nice on Bastille Day in July. Hidalgo, meanwhile, has sought to sway governments to take humanitarian action.

"Paris will not stand by and do nothing as the Mediterranean becomes a graveyard of refugees," Hidalgo said in a news conference in May, referring to the drowning of migrants attempting the sea crossing. "Today, Europe is not facing up to the humanitarian crisis of these refugees. Nor is our own country," she said, adding the city hopes the national government will help build and operate the camp, according to The Guardian.

The Monitor's Sara Miller Llana captured in August 2015 this problem facing Europe, “testing the limits of its humanitarianism.”

“The human tide has weighed heavily on some countries and inundated swaths of European countryside or urban space – eliciting fortitude and generosity of spirit, which has been undercovered,” she wrote in the Monitor’s series “Seeking Refuge. “It has also revealed a dark side to the continent: fences, tear gas, riots, and hate speech.”

While Germany has accepted millions of migrants, other central and eastern European countries that have no experience with this type of migration have balked at European Union migrant plans and quotas. Hungary has led this resistance, calling for a referendum on the EU migrant quota set for October 2.

The migrant crisis, the worst since World War II, has also stressed European countries' systems for accepting asylum seekers.

A recent EU report found that “the majority of migrants rescued at sea on this route are sub-Saharan West Africans, who generally speaking are not eligible for relocation” under EU asylum rules as the Monitor’s Peter Ford wrote in August. The report pointed out that “less than half of those rescued and brought to Italy apply for asylum upon arrival, and a large majority of these are rejected, indicating that the majority of arrivals seem to be economic migrants,” rather than refugees fleeing war or political persecution.

The origins of migrants don’t matter to Jens Pagotto, head of mission for the “Aquarius,” a search-and-rescue ship operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the Geneva-based humanitarian aid organization, off the Libyan coast, wrote Mr. Ford.

“At the end of the day,” Mr. Pagotto told Ford, “they are all people.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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