The Stalingrad metro station in Paris’ 19th arrondissement was named after an epic World War II battle that lasted half a year and saw a crushing defeat of Hitler’s troops by the Soviets.
But under this elevated station you find scenes from another epic struggle: Europe’s refugee crisis.
Migrants have set up camp here with a few tents and dozens of mattresses laid out in rows. They’re bordered by two busy and noisy boulevards.
Three weeks ago, Paris officials evacuated almost 1,000 people from the Stalingrad camp and took them to emergency shelters. The city has dismantled 18 camps like this one since June. But humanitarian workers say the camp keeps filling up again with new arrivals every day.
“This new camp has more than 200 immigrants mostly from Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea, some of them from West Africa,” says Romain Prunier, of the nonprofit United Migrants group.
“What we want is that the City Hall of Paris and the prefecture take their responsibility and give housing for all these immigrants. And we propose an acceleration of the procedure for asylum because now it is very, very long.”
In fact, it can take up to a year.
That’s something Hossein Hossein, who arrived here two weeks ago, is about to face. He is 41, but looks much older. He says he was a lawyer in his native Sudan. He left 12 years ago and has been roaming ever since.
Before Paris, he says he spent seven years in Greece, a gateway country recently criticized for its treatment of migrants.
In Greece, Hossein says, he slept anywhere he could, and he did not feel welcome. His group received beatings from locals “because they are racist people and they don’t like black people to stay there,” he says. “Life is tough there, and we don’t find our solution. We ate from garbage and nobody care about us.”
France has generally been more comforting for him. “I saw black people, they are free and they work in police … so for me now I am relaxed,” he says.
Relaxed — but sleeping outside.
“We sleep under this bridge, but for me this is OK,” he says. “We have food and some French people came here and support us, so it’s good for me and I will wait [to see] what is going on … just cold, and just we are under the bridge,” he chuckles.
But tensions do run high in this makeshift camp. People fight over blankets and food. Earlier in the evening, there was a scuffle on the line waiting for a halal meal, and the food volunteers took off.
Saeed Habib used to sleep here. He arrived last August and now lives at a refugee center. He says most of his family has left his native Afghanistan because for young people, it’s dangerous to live there.
“Because if you live in Afghanistan you must join one side,” he says. “If you join one side, you are against another side, so it’s not really comfortable to live in Afghanistan.”
Habib says he made it to Britain in 2007 and was deported the year after. So he spent years looking for another asylum country. He’s now 26.
“I tried to find another solution in another country to stay,” he says. “Unfortunately, the country which is near Afghanistan, they didn't have respect for us like here in Europe. I went to Dubai for one month, and I had a plan to stay in Dubai. Unfortunately, there was not a suitable lifestyle for me, and I came back to Iran and stayed three months in Iran, but there was no solution for us to stay.”
So now Habib says he can’t wait for his asylum request in France to be granted.
“I really, really hope to be accepted here in France,” he says, “because I didn't come for money. I just came to live in peace and enjoy the rest of my life. Because since I understood my left and right hands, I didn’t see a good day, because everywhere we go, we just, we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
For Habib and Hossein, the uncertainty may go on for a while — and the risk of rejection could be high. According to the French Ministry of the Interior, only a quarter of those who request asylum obtain it.