Afghan children find comfort in Paris playground
As many as 100 Afghan refugee youths, some as young as 12, turn up every evening at the park to sleep, exhausted and broke as they struggle to rebuild their lives in the West.Paris -- When the children's playground in central Paris is closed off to the public at dusk, Bashar, Hassan, Amid and a dozen other Afghan boys creep in and set up their cardboard tents near the slide.
There they roll out their blankets and sleeping bags or huddle up to the nearby shrubs at the Villemin Square, in Paris' trendy 10th district.
As many as 100 Afghan refugee youths, some as young as 12, turn up every evening at the park to sleep, exhausted and broke as they struggle to rebuild their lives in the West.
"We are not beggars," said Bashar, whose parents, brothers and sisters were killed in Afghanistan when he was eight years old. "We left Afghanistan because we did not want to die, because there is no future there."
Bashar fled after his uncle sold his shop to raise the thousands of euros needed to pay smugglers for safe passage to the West, but in France the 15-year-old faces new hardship.
Rights groups are raising the alarm over the growing number of refugee children who wander the streets of Paris and make their way to this neighbourhood, dubbed "Little Kabul".
The refugee advocacy group France Terre d'Asile has come across 683 migrants under the age of 18 who have been left to fend for themselves in the French capital in 2008, up from 480 in 2007.
In the neighbourhood of trendy Parisian urbanites, Terre d'Asile helps provide shelter for refugee minors, but there are only 28 beds, said Dominique Bordin, the director for protection of minors at the group.
Not far from the park, another charity group serves a warm breakfast to the minors as well-heeled Parisians pour out into the streets, heading to work.
There are signs that the refugees have worn out their welcome in the area where some residents banded together to demand an end to the breakfast service that draws long queues of refugees.
One Afghan national was killed and a second one was seriously injured when a fight broke out between refugees at the square on Sunday, police said.
But police have stopped their almost-nightly raids on the park to chase away the minors who would invariably return a few hours later for a short night's rest, according to rights groups.
Medecins Sans Frontieres has set up a presence not far from the playground to reach out to the migrants who spend months in a no man's land waiting for their asylum cases to be heard, said Laura Brav, a psychologist with MSF.
Since 2003, refugee minors get special help from the French state under a programme run by Terre d'Asile which tries to find foster families for the boys. Last year, they found homes for 50 refugee children.
Disappointed, the Afghan boys made clear they believe France's reputation as generous when it comes to asylum is exaggerated.
"I was told France was the land of human rights but look! You are waging war in our country and here, you don't even treat us like human beings," said Hassan.
France has 2,800 troops in Afghanistan as part of a 55,000-strong NATO force.
Immigration Minister Eric Besson, a former leftist who has joined the right-wing government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, came to the neighbourhood earlier this month and met with some of the refugees.
Besson has set up a working group to examine the problem of refugee minors and a report is to be presented in July.
Refugee rights activists point to the closure in 2002 of the Sangatte immigrant holding centre near the northern port of Calais as having exacerbated the migrant problem elsewhere in France.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported a spike in the number of Afghan asylum seekers in 2008. They were up by 85 percent compared to an average of 12 percent for other migrants.
France ranked third in the world in 2008 for the number of asylum requests, after the United States and Canada. Nearly 43,000 people requested asylum, up some 20 percent from 2007, according to the French refugee protection office Ofpra.