By Chine Labbé
PARIS (Reuters) - Osman, a 19-year-old asylum-seeker from Sudan, had been on the migrant route for almost a year, traveling through Libya, Italy, and France before making it to a brand new center that opened last month in the north of Paris.
Had he arrived a few weeks earlier, he might have ended up in a squalid camp, like the dozens that have sprung up in the city in the past.
The 400-bed center, located in a vast concrete warehouse on a former industrial zone, offers to Osman and other single men a temporary refuge for up to 10 days, until the government has worked out a more permanent solution for them.
"I came to the center after five days sleeping outdoors, on the street, near the bridge", Osman, who formerly worked in Sudan's gold-mines, told Reuters in Arabic.
French authorities are touting the center, which has been set up at a cost of 6.5 million euros ($7 million), as a model for others to follow.
In just 18 months, from June 2015 to November 2016, thirty makeshift camps have been cleared in Paris, with authorities providing emergency shelter for 22,000 migrants, according to a townhall spokesman.
Three weeks after the opening of this new center, such camps are no longer springing up, authorities say.
Several NGOs working with migrants worry, though, that with its limited capacity, the center might not solve the problem in the long-run. "What is on offer is necessary. But is it enough? I am not so sure," Pierre Henry, director of the France Terre d'Asile NGO said.
For now, authorities say the center is running smoothly, and is trying to ensure that all newcomers are housed quickly. Like Henry though, they hope other such centers will be set up in France. "It's vital to have this type of thing along all the migrants routes," said Eric Lejoindre, mayor for Paris's 18th district, where the center is located.
By November 24, some 1,253 people had passed through the center's welcome point - an inflatable bubble designed by a German architect -, with families, women and unaccompanied minors being redirected to other government-sponsored housing.
More than 700 men, coming mostly from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan have been accommodated already on the site in wooden cabins accommodating four men each.
"We feel that the center really responds to the migrants' need for peace of mind," said Bruno Morel, head of NGO Emmaus Solidarite, which manages the center.
($1 = 0.9412 euros)
(Reporting and writing by Chine Labbé; Editing by Richard Balmforth)