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Following migrant shipwrecks, Paris will build first official camp

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Benoit Tessier/Reuters

(Read caption) Migrants from Eritrea sit near tents as they live in a makeshift camp under a bridge in Paris. The capital city will open an official migrant camp in the next four to six weeks.

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The week after the body of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy, washed onto a beach in Turkey in September, France agreed to welcome in 24,000 asylum-seekers over two years. Now, after three separate shipwrecks in the Mediterranean starting a week ago killed at least 700 migrants, the Parisian mayor has announced the capital city will open its first official refugee camp in the coming weeks.

"Paris will not stand by and do nothing as the Mediterranean becomes a graveyard of refugees," Mayor Anne Hidalgo said in a press conference Tuesday. "Today, Europe is not facing up to the humanitarian crisis of these refugees. Nor is our own country," she said, adding the city hopes the national government will help build and operate the camp, according to The Guardian.

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The establishment of a camp marks more than a shift in the city's strategy toward migrants. It also echoes sentiments shifting across France this year, spurred after images of Alan Kurdi lying face down on the shore went viral, one international relations expert told The Christian Science Monitor at the time. 

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Yet the country's support toward welcoming migrants hasn't been steadfast. The French have wavered over how to respond to the migrant crisis, especially after the November terror attacks in Paris, with conservatives like Marine Le Pen warning that migrants weaken Europe.  

Ms. Hidalgo criticized the national government's lack of action, saying Paris would no longer wait for it to do more to provide proper accommodation for migrants, as The Wall Street Journal reported. "We will take matters into our own hands," she said.

Hidalgo said the camp would be modeled after France's first purpose-built camp in Dunkirk, in northern France. The camp offers wooden structures that meet minimum United Nations humanitarian standards, with heated shelter, sufficient drinking water, kitchens, showers, and sanitation. Hidalgo said the Parisian camp, to be built somewhere north of the city, will meet UN requirements as well.

More important, she said, it will improve on the makeshift camps scattered throughout Paris, which she called "no longer tenable," referencing one in particular that sprung up with 800 people in the past few days. Authorities have cleared other camps because of health concerns, only to see settlements start elsewhere.

As Hidalgo works to reverse Parisians' attitudes toward migrants, the crisis has remained politically sensitive for President François Hollande, as Colette Davidson reported for the Monitor in September.

"France has traditionally remained conservative on the migrant – and immigrant – question. It has seen a growing populist movement in recent months, primarily led by Marine Le Pen’s National Front party," Ms. Davidson wrote. 

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Even as Ms. Le Pen's popularity grew, however, there was "growing support for stronger humanitarian action across France, which had seen a surge in anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment in recent months," she reported. Mayors from a dozen cities agreed to create policies to accept more refugees, and ten cities planned gatherings in support of migrants, including Paris.

The French embraced those decisions, according to the Elabe polling agency: in September, French support for accepting migrants from war zones like Syria rose from 44 percent to 53 percent in a week, following the images of the drowned toddler Alan Kurdi. 

The November attacks in Paris reversed that trend, however. An online poll in January, following the Paris attacks and news of attacks on women in Cologne, Germany, on New Year's Eve, found 60 percent of French respondents opposed welcoming refugees, compared to 40 percent in favor.

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