LYON, France — From their villages and towns in West Africa, the squatters had crossed deserts, seas and mountains to arrive in Lyon, most of them for no specific reason.
The next bus was headed to Lyon, one explained. As France’s third-largest city, Lyon didn’t seem as intimidating as Paris, another said. A fellow migrant, befriended in a camp in Italy, sent over a WhatsApp message about a place to stay, yet another recounted.
But for Sidi Koné, the reason was Lyon’s soccer team. He had always been a fan in his village in Mali, now overrun by Islamic extremists and bandits. France, the former colonial ruler, had always seemed familiar, almost like “family” — and “not unjust.”
Two years later, Mr. Koné, 27, is squatting with 450 other men from Africa in a vacant school building that has become a crucible of the continent’s hopes, problems and complex feelings toward France. With another winter almost here, the migrants are in limbo in a city that wants to expel them, in a country that is losing its patience and on a continent that has already lost it.
“But my mother is happy I’m here,” Mr. Koné said. “Over there, it’s life and death.”
Thousands of migrants from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe are now in makeshift shelters across France, in abandoned schools, convents, tents and, in the case of hundreds of Tibetans, in a forest not far from Paris.
France recently overtook Germany as Europe’s leading destination for asylum-seekers and is now on track to receive a record number of applications this year, in what experts say is a ripple effect of the migrant crisis. The previous record — 124,000 applications — was set last year, and amounted to a 23 percent jump from the year before.
Applications in France have spiked even as the flow of migrants to Europe has slowed since reaching a peak in 2015 from the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Though Europe has tried to stem migration from sub-Saharan Africa through development aid and other programs, many migrants from the continent — fleeing local conflicts or pursuing economic opportunities — continue to arrive by sticking to routes that have been used for decades.
France has also become what experts describe as a “rebound” destination. Applicants who had been rejected for asylum in another European country are trying again in France.
Gérard Sadik, an asylum expert at La Cimade, a migrants rights group, said that Europe’s lack of a “supranational asylum process” encouraged applicants to waste years before finding a country that will accept them, or before they are finally sent back home.
France has increased available housing for asylum-seekers in recent years. But in early November it announced get-tough measures, including restricting asylum-seekers’ access to non-urgent health care and the use of a daily stipend of about $8.20 for those not provided with lodging.
President Emmanuel Macron — a centrist who has tacked right in a move to wrest the volatile issue of immigration from his main political rival, the far-right National Rally — recently told a right-wing magazine that his “goal is to throw out everybody who has no reason to be here.”
In Lyon, the metropolitan government, which has been trying to expel the squatters from the school building, is appealing a recent court ruling allowing them to stay until next September.
Today, some 450 young, single men sleep jammed inside the school’s classrooms and manage the premises — ensuring security, cleaning and making dinner with supplies provided by the city. Most are from France’s former colonies in West Africa, though there is a growing minority from the region’s former British colonies.
If the squatters rediscovered the natural solidarity often found across Africa, they also faced a lack of unity, corruption, suspicions and tensions — between different ethnic groups, as well as between Anglophones and Francophones, some of whom resorted to communicating in the broken Italian they had picked up on their long journeys to Lyon.
“I’ve learned so much about the problems of Africa by being here,” said Ibrahim Koné, 18, a Malian and migrant leader who presides over a weekly meeting with French supporters. “It’s difficult to come to any decisions because many of the people here, like our leaders back in Africa, just want to give orders and aren’t interested in democracy.”
Mr. Koné, who is not related to Sidi Koné, said that many people suspected the migrant leaders of pocketing benefits from the French, adding that sometimes suspicion was justified. The key to the supply room had been changed, he said, because of pilfering.
On a recent rainy morning, a group of Anglophone men shared a smoke under a shelter in the courtyard. They accused their fellow Francophone migrants of being too close to the French and of failing to aggressively plead their case to the authorities.
“These people were colonized by French people, who gave them the worst syllabuses, poor education,” said Sam Amoako, a migrant from Ghana.
“You see this illiterate?” he snapped when a French speaker from Ivory Coast dropped by and started complaining about the living conditions without first greeting the Anglophones. “No bonjour?”
It all began in September 2018 when Ghassen Zaghdoud, a longtime housing activist in Lyon, set his sights on a secondary school that had closed in 2013, Maurice-Scève.
Mr. Zaghdoud, who had spent years taking over vacant public buildings to house the homeless, said the premises seemed perfect for the young African migrants he had noticed sleeping in a nearby park.
When he began occupying the school with about 50 Africans, Mr. Zaghdoud said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the neighbors’ reaction. Within days, the squatters had more than enough food, mattresses and other donations.
“I’ve never had as much support from neighbors in the 20 years that I’ve been squatting,” Mr. Zaghdoud said.
The Africans found themselves in Croix-Rousse, a hilly neighborhood away from the center of Lyon. Once the site of the city’s silk-weaving industry, Croix-Rousse is now a gentrifying, sought-after neighborhood with restaurants catering to a “bobo,” or bohemian bourgeois, clientele.
Sébastien Gervais, a high school math teacher who moved to Croix-Rousse two decades ago, became involved in a group that supports the squatters and has fought efforts by the city to expel them.
To Mr. Gervais, France has a responsibility to take care of the squatters, especially because they hail from former colonies where the French still exercise great economic, political and military influence.
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“Some of them say they’re here because France exploits their countries,” Mr. Gervais said, “and I think they’re right.”
Lyon’s metropolitan government, which owns the school property, wants to expel the squatters and use the land for a condominium project that would include a share of low-cost housing, said Pascal Isoard-Thomas, who oversees social affairs for Lyon.
The city, which is legally responsible for housing migrants who are minors, relocated squatters recognized as non-adults to public housing. But because adult asylum-seekers are the responsibility of the French government, the city is seeking to expel the remaining squatters from the school, Mr. Isoard-Thomas said, adding that the city’s role was now limited to being “the owner of the property.”
No former colonial power has kept as big a footprint in Africa as France has. Today, seven decades after the independence of its African colonies, French businesses dominate in the region, where most points of reference remain French. France backs a common currency used there, and 4,500 of its soldiers are fighting against Islamic extremism in five former colonies in the Sahel.
For many of the migrants, France had loomed over them since their earliest days in kindergarten, an ineffable presence that both repelled and drew them.
“It was the country that colonized us, but they have this motto — liberty, equality and fraternity — which means a lot,” said Mamadou Sow, a Guinean who grew up in Ivory Coast. “I thought they didn’t give it to us in Africa, but that I’d find it here, and that’s why I came.”
“But I’m here, and I don’t see it,” Mr. Sow added. “I’m an asylum-seeker but they won’t house me. It starts with that.”
Others, like Alpha Sow, 24, a Gambian who is not related, drew a distinction between a nation and continent that did not want them, and the local French supporters in Lyon.
Impoverished farmers, his parents sent him at an early age to neighboring Senegal where he begged for years on the streets as a Quranic student, or talibé, for a religious leader. On an annual visit home in his late teens, a fire he set to his family’s plot to keep it fertile accidentally spread out of control, destroying neighbors’ crops and livestock, he said.
Fearing for his son’s life, his father urged him to flee to Europe. So began a six-year odyssey that took him across the Sahara on a well-established smuggling route, where a pickup truck in his convoy broke down and left a dozen migrants to die in the desert; nine months struggling to survive in Libya; a boat across the Mediterranean to Italy where he spent three years in a camp; and, after his asylum request was rejected in Italy, a trek across the Alps into France.
He was aware that France was closing the door on people like him, but he held out hope by pointing to the local French, who had given the migrants pots, cups, spoons, taken them in their cars to hospitals, provided French lessons and helped them arrange appointments with French bureaucrats.
“I don’t know what they want from us, I don’t know what they want to do tomorrow, why they are coming, I don’t know,” Mr. Sow said, speaking on the edge of his bed in a tiny room inside the school. “But right now, I can say, alhamdulillah, they are good, and if I see them, all I can say is, ‘Thanks, brother, thanks.’ ”
Mélissa Godin contributed reporting in Paris.