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With Official Housing Scant, French People Open Their Homes to Migrants

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PARIS — Walking home one night several years ago in a suburb of Paris, Raphaël Marre was horrified to see a group of migrants and asylum seekers sleeping on the street outside his home.

Why wasn’t the government housing them? he wondered. After witnessing the same scene for several weeks, he and his wife decided to do it themselves, signing up with a nonprofit that links migrants with people in the Paris region willing to open up their homes for a few nights.

“That was a triggering moment,” Mr. Marre said. “We thought, ‘This can’t be happening, we have to do something.’”

Five years after a migrant crisis that convulsed Europe, France is still struggling to accommodate the thousands of people who have applied for asylum in France. And Mr. Barre is still welcoming them into his home.

The government acknowledges that it has been slow to find accommodation for asylum seekers, and says that it plans to add more places in the coming year. But groups like Utopia 56, the nonprofit that Mr. Marre signed up with, say that the added accommodation is not enough and that the government is dragging its heels on providing housing to deter more people from coming to France at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is growing.

“France wants to stigmatize this population by saying, ‘You have nothing to do here, you are not refugees,’” said Yann Manzi, a founder of Utopia 56. “This is purposely done. It’s not that we don’t have room but it is that we want to give a clear message: ‘Don’t come anymore.’”

The government, for its part, says its doing its best in a tough situation. Didier Leschi, the director of the French Office of Immigration and Integration, said that France was one of the few European countries to offer emergency accommodation to everyone without conditions and that “there have never been as many asylum seekers in France as there are today.”

Mr. Leschi said that only 55 percent of the 138,000 current asylum applicants were in state-funded housing. The government also funds another housing program that is open to all, without any conditions or residency requirements, but demand, again, far exceeds supply.

Government housing for migrants varies greatly across the European Union. Germany manages to house most with a combination of subsidized rentals and offering spaces in state-run shelters. Italy provides limited public and temporary housing asylum for tens of thousands of seekers, but does not provide emergency accommodation to migrants who have been refused asylum.

In France, many of the migrants who can’t find a place to stay in the Paris area flock to the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, the city hall, where volunteers for Utopia 56 help them find a temporary shelter.

A family from the Ivory Coast — Losseni Sanogo; his wife, Assata; and their daughter, Korotoum — were in luck on a recent evening, if only for a short while. They were going to be connected with Mr. Marre.

“We’ll provide you with accommodation,” Clotilde Fournial, a Utopia 56 volunteer, told the family, who had spent the past few nights sleeping on the floor of a train station. “But it will only be for tonight.”

Less than two hours later, the family was on its way to the southeast Paris suburb of Alfortville to stay with Mr. Marre.

Utopia 56’s private housing initiative began in 2018, when France, and much of Europe, was facing a large influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, driven from their homes by war and economic deprivation.

The numbers of migrants coming to Europe has slowed in the past year, but the program is still in place, partly because of the government’s ever-growing backlog of asylum cases.

Camille Le Coz, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said a shortage of accommodation was compounded by the large number of people that needed help — some with extended asylum processes, others with nowhere else to go once their cases have been resolved, and those who have been denied asylum and refuse to leave.

In December, the government introduced an initiative that would create 4,500 new spaces in 2021. However, it is “still far from enough to meet the needs,” said Ms. Le Coz.

France’s struggle to accommodate migrants and asylum seekers has become particularly conspicuous in the streets of the Paris region. In what has become a seemingly never-ending cycle, the police regularly clear out hundreds of migrants and raze their tents and shacks, often offering them no alternative but to move somewhere else.

Utopia 56 relies on a network of volunteers, private citizens, parishes and private companies that have sheltered nearly 3,000 people during the pandemic.

Xavier Lachaume, 31, and his wife have hosted eight families in their apartment in Saint-Denis, a northern Paris suburb, since January. For now, visitors stay in their spare bedroom for a couple of nights, which they plan to turn into a room for a baby they expect in coming months.

For Mr. Lachaume, who works for the economy ministry, the effort by private citizens is a short-term solution for a long-lasting crisis.

“We shouldn’t have to do this, it should be the state,” said Mr. Lachaume.

France registered nearly 82,000 asylum applications in 2020, according to Eurostat, Europe’s statistics agency. First-time applicants declined more than 40 percent from 2019, a drop partly attributed to the coronavirus. But Mr. Manzi predicts another surge once the pandemic passes.

President Emmanuel Macron told Brut, an online news site, in December that “the slowness of our procedures means that” asylum seekers “can indeed find themselves for weeks and months” without proper accommodation.

The political debate around migrants has also been envenomed by security concerns in recent years, with right-wing politicians and conservative news media increasingly drawing a link between illegal migration and terrorism. Mr. Macron’s government has adopted a tougher approach on immigration, hoping that lures voters away from the far right.

Mr. Sanogo said he had arrived in France in 2016 after fleeing Ivory Coast, citing continuing turmoil stemming from the 2011 civil war that tore apart the country, and has lived in a series of workers’ hostels, making money off the books as a construction worker. His wife and their 9-year-old daughter joined him last month, but they were not allowed to stay in his hostel, forcing them to sleep in the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris.

Mr. Sanogo, 44, said his asylum application when he arrived in 2016 had been rejected because he did not make the request in Italy, where he first arrived in Europe, as he was supposed to do under E.U. rules. But he said he had an appointment with a lawyer to make a new application in France, this time with his family.

As he boarded the Metro with his family to go to their hosts, Mr. Sanogo recounted how he had made his away from Ivory Coast to Libya, were he said he was beaten up and robbed by traffickers, and eventually made it to Italy after a perilous boat trip across the Mediterranean.

Mr. Sanogo seemed grateful for Mr. Marre’s hospitality, but mindful that it was only for a night, said he had hidden a bag full of clothes and sheets on the outskirts of Paris.

“If we have to sleep outside,” he said.

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