France: more than space to live, the Welcome project

20 June 2014

Paris, 20 June 2014 – Swastik came from a normal family in rural Bangladesh. Her father was a farmer and her mother a tailor. Most of her life was not so different from those around her, until her sister was kidnapped and murdered and she was forced to flee for her life. Without going into the details of exactly what happened, it is suffice to say she was persecuted. 

For Swastik there was no way out: stay in Bangladesh and suffer in horrendous ways, or flee.

Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and finally France. The 11 long weeks she spent on a cargo ship were a blur. Her mind blocked out what had happened. She was there, but not truly aware of what was happening.

“I can’t say whether the journey was good or bad. It was like I wasn’t mentally conscious…. When I left Bangladesh, I couldn’t think. I attempted to finish my life …. Then I thought of everything which will happened to me and I just stopped caring”.

Swastik did not know where the boat would take her, just that she was leaving danger and heading somewhere, anywhere, else. After arriving in France, where exactly she is not sure, her smuggler brought her to Paris and left her at Gare du Nord train station. She was alone and frightened. Nothing around her was familiar: people, places nor the language. Her experience is an all too common one.

“I’m a little village girl, and when I saw Gare du Nord, I thought where am I!”

Alone outside Europe’s busiest train station, she looked for familiar faces.

“I saw a Bengali man who understood my language and he took me to a hotel. The first day, when I came here, they told me to come with them for some days until I found a room. The man was my father’s age. I was shocked. What kind of people are in this world!

After, I met another Bengali man who told me to come live with his family. Then they told me to rent a room for 300 euros. Then they said I’d do all the housework, the cleaning, and then pay to sleep on a sofa. After some days they told me to find an association to help”.

A broken system. In theory once someone applies for asylum in France, the state provides him or her with financial support, housing and access to social benefits. But the reality is far more complex and precarious.

At the end of 2013, there were nearly 24,000 beds in the state-supported reception centres (CADA) throughout France, generally of good quality. The problem is there are approximately 65,000 registered asylum seekers. At any one time, about a third of asylum seekers live in CADAs. Slightly less than that remain on a waiting list for 12 months. Once admitted into a CADA, asylum seekers stay 18 months on average. If you do the maths, you will quickly conclude there is a massive shortage of places.

In the interim, to make up the difference, the government funds another 24,000 emergency places in hotels, flats, and hostels. Waiting times for a bed can be as long as 10-12 weeks. The government focus is on emergency solutions. In 2010, according to the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, more funds were allocated to emergency measures than to the CADA system. The conditions are much worse, and the cost higher. In addition, they do not offer social or legal support.

These emergency centres prioritise individuals in the most vulnerable circumstances so asylum seekers often lose their place if a more vulnerable group arrives. Those without support networks find themselves homeless, with little support – 340 euro per month – from the state.

The situation is worse in Paris. Even though 36% of asylum applications are lodged in the capital, only 16% of the regular reception centres are situated there. Refugees come to Paris in hopes of finding employment, emergency housing, and NGO support but resources are more stretched in the capital.

Syrian asylum seeker Waleed was told there were no emergency spaces in Paris. So he went north to Lille. Upon arrival he was told he would have to wait 50 days for his asylum interview. So he slept in the train station for four days, then in a park. He contacted the Red Cross, and they told him to come back to Paris where he shared a room with five other people.

“But when a family comes, we have to leave the room, they have the priority. Then it’s the airport, the street, the airport”.

Integration. Research consistently demonstrates the importance of social networks in facilitating integration into French society. Limited social networks, social isolation, hinder the ability of refugees to find housing and employment in the country. Refugees rely excessively on contacts with fellow nationals, but limited networks produce limited results.

A quarter of the refugees sampled by the Interior Ministry ELIPA survey lived in transitory housing – hostels, reception centres or other centres run by associations – compared to only eight percent of other sampled migrants. The same survey found that less than 50 percent of recognised refugees lived in independent housing.

The initial period upon arrival in France is crucial for asylum seekers. Finding a place to stay, filing an asylum application, learning the language, building a new social network.

Welcome Network. In 2009, the Jesuit Refugee Service France established a project where families and religious communities offer asylum seekers a place to live in their homes for periods of one month at a time while they wait to get into a CADA.

The volunteer families and communities provide the asylum seeker with a bed and at least one meal a week. JRS assigns a tutor to each asylum seeker, to help him or her with the day-to-day bureaucracy of applying for refugee status and to offer general support. Swastik and Waleed both benefited from the project. Since she arrived, Swastik has lived with a few religious communities.

“When I came here I was mentally unstable, talking to myself. I felt very bad…. Right now I live with four sisters…. They guide me, they talk to me. … sometimes I’m very upset and I close my door, and Rochelle understands…. Sometimes I still feel really bad. I want to see my mother, my family. But my door is now a little open”.

Since its inception in 2012, the Welcome Network has grown substantially with the help of some 300 volunteers opening up their homes to 250 asylum seekers in 15 cities nationwide. At worst, the asylum seeker finds a clean and safe place to live; at best, the asylum seeker becomes like one of the family.

The impact JRS makes with this project is minuscule in comparison with the scale of the problem. More places are needed in government-funded CADA, leaving groups like JRS to dedicate their energies and resources to focus on what the state cannot do: welcome refugees and asylum seekers into their new communities.

James Stapleton, International Communications Coordinator, Jesuit Refugee Service and Professor of Human Rights in the John Felice Rome Center of the Loyola University Chicago

I’m a little village girl, and when I saw Gare du Nord, I thought where am I!