Migrant transfers from Paris ahead of Olympics anger mayors

Migrants and asylum seekers are regularly transferred out of overcrowded Paris (Martin BUREAU)
Migrants and asylum seekers are regularly transferred out of overcrowded Paris (Martin BUREAU)

Mayors in rural and small-town France are increasingly angry over the transfer of migrants from the capital to their communities, which they believe is linked to clean-up efforts ahead of the Paris Olympics.

Serge Grouard, the right-wing mayor of Orleans in central France, went public Monday with his complaints over the arrival of up to 500 homeless migrants in his town of 100,000 people without his prior knowledge.

"It has been proved that every three weeks, a coach arrives in Orleans from Paris, with between 35-50 people on board," he told reporters, adding that it was to "clean the deck" in the capital ahead of the Olympics in July and August.

Each new arrival is offered three weeks in a hotel at the state's expense, but is thereafter left to fend for themselves, Grouard explained.

Paris has long been a magnet for asylum seekers and migrants, mostly from Africa, South Asia or the Middle East, with demand for short-term emergency accommodation far exceeding supply.

As a result, informal camps under bridges or on unoccupied land spring up regularly around the capital, which are periodically torn down by police.

Occupants are offered the chance to apply for asylum and the government's policy is to move many of them out of Paris and into facilities elsewhere in the country.

"We haven't been consulted, either about the creation or about the people who will go there," the deputy mayor of Strasbourg, Floriane Varieras, told AFP when asked about a new facility near her city in eastern France.

"That's where I agree with the mayor of Orleans, the rather opaque side of what is happening," she added.

- 'Social cleansing?' -

In January, the major of Lavaur, a small town near Toulouse in southwest France, issued a public letter in which he denounced the policy of transferring migrants around the country as "irresponsible" and "dangerous".

"To make Paris in all likelihood more 'presentable' and more controllable, six months before the Olympic Games," wrote Bernard Carayon. "It's unacceptable."

French President Emmanuel Macron backed the idea of dispersing asylum seekers and refugees around the country during a speech in September 2022.

The centrist called the longstanding policy of concentrating migrants in low-income areas of major cities "absurd" and argued that refugees could help bring about a "demographic transition" in rural and small-town France.

Many areas outside of France's major cities are undergoing population decline, leading to school closures and labour shortages.

But right-wing and far-right politicians have long denounced the policy, accusing Macron of introducing poverty, crime and Islamism into traditional communities which are frequently wary of outsiders.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen reached a historic high in the 2022 presidential election and her anti-immigration party is on track for victory in European parliament elections in June, according to surveys.

In February, an umbrella group of 80 French charities called the Revers de la medaille (The other side of the medal) denounced what it called the "social cleansing" of Paris ahead of the Olympics with efforts to remove migrants, the homeless and sex workers.

The complaints echoed others heard in host cities of the Olympics in the past.

Authorities in China cleared an unknown number of beggars, hawkers and the homeless from the streets before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with many shipped back to their home regions, reports said at the time.

Brazilian campaign groups also said Rio de Janeiro's homeless were being forced out of tourist areas in the middle of the night as the city hosted the games in 2016.

More than a million people filed requests for asylum in the European Union in 2023, the highest level in seven years, according to EU statistics.

France received the second-highest number of requests at 167,000.