From Africa to France: The wounded self-esteem of asylum seekers

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Some eighty Somali and Sudanese refugees who had illegally squatted a military barracks in Pontoise, near Paris for months, are being relocated to hotels. The decision, reached last Thursday by the prefectural and municipal authorities of the city, comes after an aggressive media coverage of the unsanitary living conditions of the immigrants. Report.

Gone are the precarious conditions of squat. Hello, the hotel rooms. But for how long? It is the question being asked by the sixty-something Somali and Sudanese refugees who were, last Thursday, relocated to hotels by the Prefecture of Val d’Oise. This came after the French press extensively covered their predicament. Deprived of running water and electricity, the immigrants had been living in the abandoned buildings at the former Bossut barracks in Pontoise, north-west of Paris, for months. Some twenty of them are yet to move.

Survival of the fittest

jpg_groupe_somaliens_2-3.jpgIt is difficult to tell if people are still at the premises from the outside. A wall, several meters high, surrounds the barracks, which is spread on more than 12 hectares, making it practically impossible to see inside the camp. It is only by getting closer to the big abandoned buildings that the garbage and shopping carts scattered on both sides of the pathway suggest that the buildings are still occupied.

Once inside the buildings, bed sheets, newspapers and debris scattered on the floor confirm the hypothesis. In fact, this is the only place where Issa Abdi and his compatriots managed to ensconce themselves with the mattresses and blankets given to them by the city of Pontoise. The place looks almost like a real home, with a stove sitting in the middle of the room. The smell of fried food lingers in the air. “There are ten of us living in this room. Fortunately our numbers are enough to keep us warm,” says Issa.

jpg_issa-2.jpgLike most of his countrymen, the forty year-old Somali landed in France in August by plane at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. When the border police questioned him about the purpose of his visit, he told them he was seeking asylum. “I left my country because of war,” he says. I was a baker in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. In July, insurgents of the al-Shabab militia asked me to join them in their struggle against the government. I refused. They then threatened me with death. That’s why I fled.” The story is similar to that of the eighty Somalis and Sudanese who had sought refuge on the abandoned barracks. Some say they fled the fighting in Mogadishu and Kismayo in Somalia, while others claim they fled the volatile Sudanese region of Darfur.

“We are all political refugees who have left our country to escape war,” said Ahmed Jama, a 29 year-old Somali, acting as spokesperson on behalf of the Somali refugees for the prefectural and municipal authorities. “We all filed applications for political asylum at the OFPRA [French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons] upon arrival in France. But OFPRA have ignored us. They do not care how we live, or how we survive!” he said, before recounting how he scavenged for food in garbage cans at Gare du Nord, one of the major European train stations in Paris, only a few weeks ago.

A deaf ear

jpg_Poubelles-3.jpgUntil early last week, nobody seemed to have heard of the plight of these refugees. Apparently, the prefectural and municipal authorities have been constantly dodging responsibility. Humanitarian groups also claim to have come across the case only two weeks ago when the Pontoise authorities notified them. It was “at this point that we brought them clothing and food” said Jamila Bordet, Secretary General of the People’s Relief (Secours Populaire).

It took an article in the Le Parisien newspaper to bring the housing concerns of the asylum seekers to light and force the authorities react. Two days after the article appeared, the prefecture, municipality and city authorities met to decide on how to relocate the asylum seekers. “To date, nearly sixty of the asylum seekers have been relocated. Most of them Somalis. “We had more difficulty in convincing the Sudanese, due to language barrier,” the authorities said. “In a few days, everyone still living in the barracks be relocated,” they added.

jpg_Mec_ds_chambre-1.jpgThe big question among the asylum seekers who have refused to accept the hotel offer is how long they will be allowed to stay in their hotel rooms until they are thrown out into the streets. They did not want to take advantage of the hotel alternative for fear of being returned to the streets two weeks after having lived at the hotel. Despite their relocation, the Somali and Sudanese refugees are conscious of the fact that they have a long way to go yet. “The procedure takes a long time. We need investigators to verify the nationality of the asylum seekers, which is very difficult to do since almost none of them possesses identity cards,” said Jamila Bordet.

Despite their struggle, the fact remains that these refugees have been successful in getting a rare reaction from the authorities. They have also been able to find a solution, albeit precarious.

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