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History Repeating Itself at France’s Gateway to Paradise

Since the Jungle migrant camp was dismantled, asylum seekers are trickling back to Calais in the hope of reaching the U.K. Political economy professor Behzad Yaghmaian explains why Sudanese asylum seekers living in limbo in Lyon, France, have few other options.

Written by Behzad Yaghmaian Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Sudanese asylum seekers at a reception center in Lyon, France. Behzad Yaghmaian

Bebeto, a Sudanese asylum seeker living in France, got his nickname from the legendary former Brazilian football player.

“I used to be a very good player,” the soft-spoken 24-year-old told me in a temporary reception center in a suburb of Lyon, France, in mid-January. “I was very fast.”

Now, Bebeto is going nowhere anytime soon. History is repeating itself in France, as walls are erected, camps shut down and asylum seekers left in limbo. And Bebeto feels trapped.

After he fled Sudan, Bebeto took a boat in Libya, but it capsized. He survived and headed directly to the French port city of Calais, taking shelter in the “Jungle” migrant settlement last June. Four months later, France dismantled the camp and thousands of migrants were dispatched to reception centers across France.

Bebeto, along with a couple dozen other Sudanese asylum seekers, were bused to Venesseuix, a suburb of Lyon, and housed in a clinic converted into a temporary reception center.

Bebeto says he was told he would be in the center for only a few weeks. More than four months later, he and his friends remain there with no prospect of moving.

For now, the men are sheltered and fed. Bebeto shares a clean room with a spacious bathroom and a portable stove with another Sudanese man – a real improvement on his tarpaulin and cardboard tent in the Jungle.

But they are tired of waiting. They describe their days as “sleeping, getting up, eating, talking to friends and sleeping again.”

“We didn’t leave Sudan for this,” one of Bebeto’s friends told me.

Bebeto listening to friends telling stories of life in Calais and Lyon. (Behzad Yaghmaian)

Bebeto listening to friends telling stories of life in Calais and Lyon. (Behzad Yaghmaian)

A Future in France?

Bebeto and his friends have limited options. One is to claim asylum in France. In 2016, more than 5,800 Sudanese applied for asylum in France. Some 37 percent were accepted. Single men like Bebeto and his friends have a smaller chance of gaining asylum.

If approved, the men will most likely be relocated and housed in Les Minguettes, a vast public housing enclave a couple of tram stops away from the reception center.

The large blocks of 17-story buildings were built in the early 1970s to house French workers and North African immigrants working in nearby auto, electronics and other industries. As time passed, most of the white French communities moved out of Les Minguettes, buying private homes with money saved from factory labor. The North Africans remained.

Soon, Les Minguettes became a center of high youth unemployment, disproportional school dropout rates and all the ills of a life on the margins of society.

Other Arabic-speaking Muslim migrants were relocated to Les Minguettes and by the time Bebeto arrived in France, Les Minguettes had become home to thousands of Sudanese, Turks and Afghans. Its reputation for violence, drugs and delinquency had grown worse over time.

Employers would not hire people with an address in Les Minguettes. Landlords in the private housing market demanded a full time and regular job contract, a rarity for Les Minguettes’ residents.

“Les Minguettes is a prison. Once there, you cannot escape. You are there to stay,” a Sudanese refugee who had lived there for seven years told me in January.

The men cook a communal lunch in their rooms and share their food every day. (Behzad Yaghmaian)

The men cook a communal lunch in their rooms and share their food every day. (Behzad Yaghmaian)

Road to Calais

Bebeto and his friends do not know much about Les Minguettes, or the possible life that might await them in France.

But their agonizing wait for papers may eventually push them in another direction – back on the road to Calais.

Despite the dismantling of the Jungle, Calais remains the gateway to an imagined future with security in the U.K. It has been so for nearly two decades.

Since the late 1990s, migrants have set up makeshift camps, small and large, in and around Calais. And the French government has been dismantling the camps, hoping to make the problem disappear.

I first visited Calais’ makeshift encampments in 2003. Around 200 Afghans, Iranians, Iraqi Kurds and Sudanese camped along the railroad tracks. Less than a hundred people, mainly Iraqi Kurds, lived in hiding in what later became known as the Jungle.

That was the situation in Calais for years. The numbers ebbed and flowed. Then thousands arrived after the Arab Spring and the Syrian war, and the “Jungle” was born.

Two months after the camp was dismantled, the French government completed a 13-foot-tall concrete barrier to keep people away from the road leading to the English Channel.

We would walk as long as needed to go around the wall, Bebeto’s friends told me. “At least we had hope in Calais. We had a chance to leave,” one of them said.

Hundreds of migrants have already found their way back to Calais. Many “mini jungles” have emerged away from public eye. Soon, larger encampments may appear around Calais.

For years, Europe has been building walls and militarizing borders to keep away migrants. How many more encampments will we dismantle until we come up with a new sustainable policy? How many walls are we going to erect in Calais or elsewhere in the world?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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