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Africans Prefer European Ghettos to Home

By Associated Press Writer

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) - Rundown buildings housing African immigrants in Paris have proven to be deadly fire traps. But from the vantage point of struggling Africans, they are appealing nevertheless - at least compared to the deep poverty and insecurity of home.

On Monday, flames ravaged an apartment building in the French capital housing a dozen immigrant families from Ivory Coast, killing seven people.

Monday's fire and two similar blazes since April have killed a total of 48 people - mostly African immigrants living in cramped accommodations so bad the French interior minister said Tuesday some of them should be closed down.

The dilapidated housing draws those who can afford no better: asylum seekers awaiting decisions on residency requests, illegal immigrants or legal arrivals waiting for a place in public housing.

A businessman in Ivory Coast's skyscraper-strewn main city, Abidjan, was unfazed by the stories of Africans living in substandard housing.

``Compared to Ivory Coast, Europe is still paradise,'' said Alexandre Galley, who studied at a Parisian university and now works in the telecommunications industry in Ivory Coast, a former French colony split between government- and rebel-zones since a failed 2002 coup sparked civil war.

``Living in a small studio or in a substandard apartment in Europe is better than living in a country where there is chaos and insecurity,'' Galley said.

Africans flee to Europe illegally to escape not only conflict but poverty on a continent where many get by on less than a dollar a day.

In Europe, they can earn thousands of dollars a month, even at relatively low-wage jobs as housekeepers or factory workers. Many are able to send money home.

``Even with the fires, is it worse than here?'' asked Ephraim Panzu, a 38-year-old Internet cafe owner in Muanda, a small town on Congo's Atlantic Ocean coast where children play and poultry feed on mountains of garbage in the streets. ``We live in a trash heap here.''

``Look around,'' said another Muanda resident, jobless 30-year-old Aime Mvangi. ``Would you want to bring up your children here?''

Four months before Monday's fire, 24 people died in a Paris blaze that swept through a budget hotel housing African immigrants. On Friday, a fire struck an overcrowded building housing Africans in the French capital, killing 14 children and three adults.

Some in Africa simply expressed sorrow and blamed their continent's poverty.

``If the living conditions were better in Africa, Africans wouldn't be leaving to live in Europe,'' said Idrissi Sow, a businessman in the main market in Guinea's capital, Conakry. ``But there, at least each person has his chance. They went to live a better life and make money, they died. May their souls rest in peace.''

In Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, 36-year-old Joseph Nana, agreed.

``These are Africans who are struggling to survive in another country, but misfortune has befallen them,'' Nana said.

For many Africans who have heard of anti-immigrant or racist sentiment in Europe, the string of fires in Paris seemed more than accidental. The April fire appears to have been an accident. French officials have raised the possibility that Friday's fire was caused by human actions, either by arson or accident. Monday's fire was under investigation.

``Africans are not the only ones poorly housed in Europe,'' said Houleymacou Diallo, a pharmacist in Conakry. ``Why is it only the houses of the Africans that are on fire?''

Panzu, the cyber cafe owner, alleged French authorities cared little for African immigrants.

``I'm sure this would not have happened if white people were living in those buildings,'' Panzu said, the Internet cafe owner. ``Africans are abandoned in France.''

Philippe Ouadrago, a cook from Burkina Faso who is an immigrant in Ivory Coast, said he believed the fires were accidental.

``People die in fires here, too,'' Ouadrago said. ``Or worse, they can even get killed by their own security forces.''