A grand Olympic plan for the Seine. But first, the tent camps.

PARIS - He’d been living in the tent for nine days when the police arrived.

“Bonjour, monsieur!” an officer shouted. “Reveille!”

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Ba Dak crawled out of his sleeping bag, unzipped the tent flap and stepped into the frigid February air. The camp, tucked beneath the Charles de Gaulle Bridge on the northern bank of the Seine River, bustled with movement in the windy pre-dawn darkness.

Police officers in neon green vests marched between rows of tents, whose inhabitants rose from slumber to pack their belongings. On either side of the camp, armed officers in black stood watch, forming lines that blocked pedestrians and bicyclists on the promenade. Above, police vans spanned the bridge, and officers ordered rubbernecking bystanders to keep it moving.

Dak huddled with friends at the edge of the camp. All younger than 21, they had journeyed thousands of miles before finding refuge here, as global conflicts continue to compel millions to flee their homelands in search of work and stability elsewhere.

Dak was 20 and from a family of farmers in South Sudan. He’d spent his teenage years as a soldier, then fled north, by car through Sudan and Libya, by boat across the Mediterranean Sea and by train across Italy and Switzerland, arriving in Paris after nearly two years. He aspires to become a boxer and yearned for France, he said, because it produced his favorite athlete, the soccer star Kylian Mbappé.

Now the only home he and his friends knew here was dissolving, erased by a government seeking to remove unhoused people from its streets before the Olympic Games shines a global spotlight on Paris this summer.

“So when the tourists come, they won’t have to see the bad people,” quipped Dak, who smiles easily and often punctuates sentences with “bro.”

The sweep was part of a program France launched in May 2023. Officials billed it as an innovative effort to ease Paris’s housing crisis, by relocating people to newly constructed facilities around the country rather than hotels in the city’s emergency shelter system. But advocates for refugees claim the government had more specific motives: to clear Paris of its tent villages, free up thousands of hotel rooms before the Games and identify people who aren’t eligible to legally remain in the country.

“Moving people out of Paris is a policy decided because of the Olympic Games,” said Samy Djemaoun, a civil rights lawyer who represents immigrants seeking housing or legal status. “We didn’t have this situation before.”

Before last May, French immigration policies were more permissive to new arrivals. An undocumented immigrant faced lower threat of a police sweep on the way to living and working in France for the three years needed to qualify for permanent residency. An asylum-seeker denied official refugee status could find community and routine in a tent village while figuring out their next move.

Now, with the Opening Ceremonies weeks away, living in a tent brings constant risk of eviction. Through the first four months of 2024, police evicted 20 sites across the city - more than in all of 2022, according to government records. Every week, authorities clear a different camp in Paris, offering residents two options: board a bus to a temporary apartment in another part of the country and enter the relocation program, or find another place to sleep.

If a person enters the program, the government provides a few weeks of housing while social workers help them assess their chances of qualifying for asylum or permanent residency. Those applicants are transferred to longer-term housing and given a modest stipend while their cases are reviewed, a process that can take six months or more.

Those who are ineligible or decline to apply are sent off with a phone number for the emergency shelter system or a ticket out of the country.

For many, the program is as France advertises: a fast-track to stabler housing. Of the 2,175 people who passed through the program during its first six months, 38 percent transferred into longer-term housing, according to an internal government document reviewed by The Washington Post.

But 46 percent ended up cycling back into the country’s short-term emergency shelter system, which doesn’t have enough beds to meet demand. So they often return to the streets, sometimes back in Paris, only to be swept up again by police. Twelve other participants were issued deportation orders, ending any chance of working their way to permanent residency.

“For the Olympics, they cover up everything, but they don’t solve the problem,” said Paul Alauzy, a social worker with the nonprofit organization Médicines du Monde and founder of Le Revers de la Médaille, a coalition that aims to draw attention on how Paris’ preparations for the Games impacts the city’s marginalized communities. “Because of the Olympics, everybody who lives on the streets will be impacted.”

While the Olympics promotes a spirit of global unity and cooperation, France is only the latest host nation to be accused of burnishing its image at the expense of its most vulnerable residents.

Authorities in China evicted 1.5 million people from their homes to accommodate new development in Beijing before the 2008 Olympics. Authorities in Brazil bulldozed homes in Rio de Janeiro favelas before the 2016 games. Before the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver police cracked down on jaywalking, street vending and public urination in a low-income downtown neighborhood.

To prepare for the 2012 Olympics, authorities in Britain demolished low-cost apartment complexes in London to make room for amenities aimed to serve Olympic athletes and visitors. Then they failed to follow through on plans to construct more affordable housing in the city. And with the 2028 Olympics on the horizon, Los Angeles introduced a new policy to clear out encampments in some pockets of the city; in early March, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass visited Paris to learn about the city’s approach to reducing the number of people living on its streets.

In an interview, Christophe Noël du Payrat, an official at France’s Interior Ministry, said that the relocation program “is not due to the Olympics” but “the rise of the demand” for emergency accommodations. Those who don’t receive longer-term housing after entering the program, he said, often lack the criteria for legal immigration status. “Either they are going back to their country or back into the streets,” he said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the city government said that Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has called on the national government to use eminent domain to turn more vacant buildings in Paris into emergency shelters.

The International Olympic Committee declined to answer questions about how the Olympics impact local policies, saying in a statement, “The problem of homelessness in Paris is clearly outside the remit of the Games organisers.”

It’s a problem made especially tense by two competing factors unique to Paris: A migrant crisis that has spurred tent camps along the city’s iconic river, and the desire of organizers to make that river a centerpiece of the Games. Despite the sweeps, the number of people living on the city’s streets rose from around 3,000 in January 2023 to 3,500 in January 2024, according to government records. As police wipe out another encampment and move scores of people out of Paris, scores more arrive.

Not all new arrivals have received equal treatment. For people fleeing Ukraine, France established exclusive social services centers, changed laws to enable them to legally work and reserved around 87,000 beds across the country.

“It shows how much France can do for people,” said Djemaoun. “It is not about the means. It is about being willing.”

Most of the asylum seekers who enter the relocation program are from countries in Asia and Africa, according to social workers and participants. Some local officials outside of Paris protested proposals to build new shelters in their cities, claiming that their small towns lacked the resources to support asylum seekers. After Yannick Morez, the mayor of the western France town of Saint Brevin-les-Pins, announced his support for a facility, somebody lobbed molotov cocktails onto his property, torching two cars and destroying his house. In December, the French Parliament passed a bill that made it harder for migrants from outside the European Union to access public housing and other social services, though a court has since struck down parts of the legislation.

Dak and his friends didn’t know all of that as they gathered their things that morning, backs turned against the biting gusts that leaped from the river, rustling jackets and tents. They just knew they had a choice: to get on the bus or keep braving the streets.

One of Dak’s friends, a 20-year-old from Chad who had been in Paris for 23 days, got on the bus, which took him east to an apartment building near Strasbourg. Two others, Ibrahim and Bilal, who were 16 and had been in Paris for around a month, packed their belongings into shopping bags and followed the river west to another camp.

Dak had an appointment that morning with the immigration office, so he opted against the bus. He hoped his asylum claim would smooth his path to long-term housing and official refugee status, allowing him to stay permanently and work legally. At the office, he submitted his finger prints, filled out some paperwork and answered some questions. An immigration agent said the office would contact him once he was assigned to a bed somewhere.

“Everything will fall in the right direction, bro,” Dak said. “I will be patient no matter what happens. I am not ready to give up my faith yet.”

That afternoon, he walked back to the Charles de Gaulle Bridge. The camp was gone, replaced by corrugated metal fences intended to prevent it from springing back up. Thinking ahead that morning, Dak had rolled up his tent and hid it inside a garbage bin. He retrieved it and, as night fell, he and about a dozen others set up camp beside the fences, with Dak piling into his tent with two friends.

They fell asleep around midnight. An hour later, Dak said, two police officers woke them and ordered them to leave. They split up to avoid attention, fanning out along the riverbank in search of another place to sleep.

- - -

The Seine River winds through the heart of France’s grand Olympic plans.

After securing the hosting bid in 2017, the government embarked on an $8 billion project to prepare Paris for the world’s biggest sporting spectacle, constructing a new arena in one of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods and an Olympic Village in a disinvested northern suburb.

The notoriously grimy Seine would be cleaned, the country declared, so it could host swimming events and serve as the primary route for the Opening Ceremonies, boasting a water parade unprecedented in Olympic history.

Hosting the Opening Ceremonies in a public setting, rather than a stadium, raised questions about security. France answered with promises of a robust police presence, sophisticated surveillance and a “zero delinquency” policy, to crack down on minor infractions near Olympic sites such as the Seine.

“The goal,” Laurent Nuñez, head of Paris police, told Le Monde last year, “is to act on all elements of delinquency, from drug trafficking to pickpocketing or street sales, to anticipate as much as possible and achieve a delinquency level that is nonexistent by the time of the Olympics.”

To prepare for the expected influx of 15 million visitors, the government told hotels they wouldn’t need to provide rooms for the city’s emergency shelter system. It built housing facilities in 10 cities around the country, then increased the police sweeps around Paris. Thanks to the new policy, the capacity of those hotels “will fall by 3,000 to 4,000 places” to accommodate visitors for the Olympics, Housing Minister Olivier Klein told the French Parliament last year.

The day after the sweep, Dak texted Ibrahim and Bilal, who told him about the new camp they’d chosen, under the Pont Neuf, a forty minute walk from the Charles de Gaulle. As he made his way on the promenade along the river, the sights of Parisian postcards passed in his periphery, markers of the nation’s old wealth: Sorbonne University, Hôtel de Ville with its colorful banners promoting the Paris 2024 Olympics, the looming spires of Notre Dame Cathedral.

To advocates, the least France owed those born into formerly colonized lands was a welcome refuge. At rallies on the steps of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, in front of city hall and beneath the Arc de Triomphe, social worker Alauzy and other activists have called for the construction of an official refugee camp in the city before the Olympics, which would enable the government and charity groups to funnel resources and services to a single, designated site with enough beds to accommodate the flow of new arrivals. The government has declined to act on their calls.

“In a way, the Olympics are so great because you can seize the opportunity to say let’s do better because the whole world is watching,” Alauzy said. “The dream would be to welcome everybody who comes to Paris.”

Tracing the Olympic parade route’s opening stretch, Dak passed at least a dozen encampments. Blankets over the tops of tents kept the cold from seeping through rips in the fabric. Cracked bistro chairs formed a makeshift patio. Framed photos and art on a tunnel wall indicated a longtime inhabitant.

The camp under the Charles de Gaulle had resembled a college campus quad, ringing with laughter and youthful optimism. Boys sat in circles on the ground, showing each other videos from social media on phones with prepaid SIM cards provided by charity groups. Others kicked around a soccer ball fashioned from a cluster of rolled up socks. Newly formed friendships ran so deep that some boys returned to visit the camp even after they’d secured permanent housing.

It was through those friendships that Ibrahim, who came from South Sudan, and Bilal, who came from Chad, had heard that other young people from East African countries recently established a camp under the Pont Neuf. The two didn’t get on the bus because the relocation program was for adults, and they feared that participating would invalidate their claims as minors. Though they said they were 16, they didn’t have the paperwork to prove it and were going through a court process to determine if they qualified for child welfare services - a state of limbo so common that there is a term for it, “mijeur,” which combines the French words for “minor” and “major.”

At Pont Neuf, Dak encountered around 20 tents along the edges of the cobblestone walkway, tucked away from public attention. In the evenings, Dak and others at the camp walked two miles east, to a food pantry service outside Gare de Lyon, the train station across the street from the Charles de Gaulle Bridge. They walked in twos, threes and fours, wary of police attention.

Perched on a railing one night, they ate a plate of vegetables and rice, with cornbread on the side and apple sauce for dessert. Ibrahim crammed water bottles into his backpack. Bilal donned a Philadelphia Eagles cap he had recently found. Dak sported a pair of sneakers a friend from the camp gave him.

“I have to be patient and everything will happen,” Dak said.

He stayed at Pont Neuf for about a week. Then he received a call from the immigration office, which issued him a train ticket south, where a bed awaited him.

A few days after he left, a rainstorm flooded the banks of the Seine beneath the Pont Neuf, soaking tents, blankets, and shoes. Ibrahim and Bilal, who would continue living on the streets into the spring while their court cases played out, quickly rolled up their homes and went looking for another place to sleep.

- - -

Beyond the lavender fields and rolling pastures of southern France, Dak’s apartment building stood on the suburban outskirts of Salon-en-Provence, down the street from a McDonalds near the highway.

He moved into a two-bedroom unit with people from Afghanistan, Guinea, Sudan and Togo. His roommate from Togo gave him two pairs of pants. His roommate from Sudan gave him two button-up shirts. The French government sent a prepaid debit card with 221 euros, his monthly stipend, and he began mandatory weekly French language classes. Soon groceries covered his desk.

He inquired about boxing classes at a local gym, but the price exceeded his budget. So he spent most of his days inside his room, watching old boxing matches on YouTube, pumping out sets of push-ups, messaging relatives in South Sudan. Lying on his bed, he imagined the jobs he might find once he had legal status, and hoped for work that would pay him enough to send plenty back to his mother and four younger siblings. His father had died while Dak was making his way north.

His family owned a farm on which it grew maize and pumpkin, but Dak said that when he was 13, rebel commanders recruited him to be a spy for the military force opposing the South Sudan government, pulling him into the nation’s civil war. By 16, he said, he was flying into battle with a rifle in his arms.

“First two years, I didn’t like it,” he said. “Next two years, I get more comfortable. And then I said, ‘What am I becoming?’ ”

By 2022, he said, he’d grown disillusioned with his commanders, who had made many promises they failed to keep. After ending up at a hospital in a U.N. refugee camp in Sudan with a bullet wound on his ankle, he said, he befriended a shopkeeper who helped him get to Libya. In Tripoli, he met a farm owner who said he would arrange his transport to Europe if he worked for him for a year. Eighteen months later, he was crossing the Mediterranean on a small boat crammed with around 30 people. He landed in southern Italy and filed for asylum at a refugee camp.

From there, he said, he train-hopped north, sneaking on when ticket takers weren’t looking, hopping off when conductors caught him, hiding overnight at stations across Italy and Switzerland until he reached Paris on Jan. 29, nearly two years after he had left South Sudan.

On his first day in the city, he encountered a group of East African migrants who guided him to a camp, helped him find an empty tent and directed him to a charity that provided donated clothes and a place to shower.

He was one of around 2.4 million people to leave South Sudan over the past decade. Most have ended up in neighboring African countries. Dak sought to be one of a few thousand each year who file for asylum in France.

His homeland’s struggle served as the backdrop for one of the most inspirational stories of the 2024 Olympics. Ranked 62nd in the world, South Sudan’s national basketball team had qualified for the Games for the first time, clinching a spot among the 12 finalists by defeating Angola, the Philippines and China at the basketball World Cup in September. Nearly every member of the team has been a refugee or the child of a refugee. Some now live in the United States or Europe, where their basketball talent has earned them college scholarships or professional contracts.

Dak had no idea about the team’s success until after he arrived in Paris and a friend at the camp told him about it. He felt heartened by the goodwill the team brought to South Sudan and its diaspora. The more people knew about experiences like his, he hoped, the better his chances of finding a welcome reception.

But the law was a more complicated matter.

In early April, after five weeks in the apartment, Dak got an update: Because he had filed for asylum in Italy before applying in France, European Union policy dictated that Italy was responsible for processing his claim, and he couldn’t seek asylum in France unless Italy denied him. He had to leave France and complete his asylum process in Italy. He was no longer eligible for government assistance. Soon, another person would cycle into the bed he was leaving.

“They wanted to give me a train ticket to Italy,” Dak said. “I refused to take the ticket.”

Last year, under a new prime minister who aims to reduce the number of immigrants from African countries, Italy’s government passed laws enabling authorities to hold asylum seekers in detention centers for up to 18 months while their applications are processed.

“Bro, in Italy it’s very hard because they have racist rules,” Dak said. “If they send me back to Italy, I will come back again until they get tired of me so they will allow me to stay in France.”

Eventually, he landed on another idea: he would go to England, where European Union policies don’t apply. That country didn’t offer a warm welcome, either. In April, its government passed a controversial law to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda. But with no appealing options, Dak figured he’d take his chances.

One day in April, Dak said, he took a bus north to Calais, which sits near the coast and has become a hub for migrants hoping to cross the English Channel. Then he and two dozen others marched nine hours along the highway, to Dunkirk. The encampment there was the biggest one he had seen in France, with scores of tents across a patchy dirt field in the woods, hidden from the road behind a wall of trees. A charity group distributed food, water, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste. The man organizing the boat said the timing depended on weather. The waves, for now, were too rough.

On his fifth day in Dunkirk, police swept in.

“They rip up the tents,” Dak said, and “chase us with tear gas and electric gun, but we are all fine.”

Dak and some others managed to hide their tents in the forest when they heard the police were approaching. After the officers left, the young men restored what was left of their camp and waited for the waters to calm.

- - -


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