Riot police clear Tunisians from Paris gym as government cuts aid
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French police have cracked down on Tunisian migrants who have come to this country since the revolution that ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. A group of squatters were flushed out of a Paris gym on Tuesday and the city council says that, thanks to government cuts, their situation is set to get worse.
Maamri is 30-years-old and has been living homeless in Paris for the past six months. On Tuesday night, he was looking for a garden to sleep in after finding his temporary home at a gymnasium in the north-east of the city, closed and blocked off by more than 100 CRS riot police.
“Today, I came back after looking for a job to take a shower, as usual, and to take my things, my bag, my medication, and there was a police officer who told me ‘get out of here and shut your mouth’ before pushing me ... I don’t know what I’m going to do … where I’ll go to sleep,” he says.
Maamri joins upwards of 100 Tunisian migrants who found themselves on the street without their belongings around 10 pm, Tuesday night. They had been illegally occupying the Belleville gymnasium since 1 May but the Paris city council had let them stay – with repeated warnings that the situation was only temporary.
Finally, after extending the deadline at least once, the city moved to shutter it for good on Tuesday.
“We decided to close the gym rather than have it evacuated because we wanted to avoid having to make arrests,” says deputy mayor Pascale Boistard, who is head of integration of non-Europeans.
“We also need to give back this centre to the community, which was unable to access its services since the illegal occupation of the gymnasium. And the roof, in particular, needs repairs,” Nathalie Royer of the mayor’s office added.
Boistard says the city of Paris has struggled to secure alternative housing for the migrants, in cooperation with the NGOs Aurore and France Terre d’Asile. And they were warned in advance that the gym would be closed, she says.
“We had a list of around 80 Tunisian migrants whose situation we have been following closely in cooperation with several organisations, and who have been sleeping regularly at the gym,” says Boistard. “We managed to find emergency housing for 40 of them. Of the 40 others, several refused our propositions and some remained without a solution.”
Royer says that Paris is the only city in France to have set up an action plan to aid the migrants, who left Tunisia after the revolution that overthrew Ben Ali’s government. More than 5,000 people landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa in January and, as the French government anticipated, many went on to France to find work and a better life.
But budget problems have caused services to Tunisian refugees to screech to a halt. The mayor’s office says by the time the emergency action plan will have expired on 31 August, the state will have spent 1.4 million euros on emergency housing and aid to Tunisian migrants since the start of the Arab Spring.
“Unfortunately the plan won't be extended. The resources are simply not there,” says Boistard. “And it's not our job but the state's. We started the action plan because this is a terrible humanitarian crisis. The state refuses to take care of the Tunisian migrants, and its only response is to arrest and deport them.”
Boistard sees the situation getting much worse in the face of severe budgetary constraints and plans by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to cut back on emergency housing.
“By September, I expect 5,000 additional homeless foreigners and French people to be out on the streets,” she says.
The city’s explanations were of little comfort to many of the Tunisians left on the street on Tuesday night. They blamed the French government for the lack of aid.
Brahim, 16, says he came to France looking for work and a better life but has felt disillusioned since arriving. “In Italy, people helped us all the time. Now that we’re in France, nothing. There are so many Arabs here but no one is helping us.”
For Maamri, every day since he left Tunisia six months ago has been a struggle. Living without an income, he says he subsists on one meal a day, which he usually scrounges from local cafes. “It’s like I’m doing Ramadan [the Muslim fasting month],” he jokes.
For many like Maamri, dreams of creating a new life in Europe are wearing thin.
“I came here because it’s Paris,” he says. “You know, the dream of Paris. But it’s been so hard. I think I might just go back home.”