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French city welcomes 42 Aquarius migrants

media The refugees with with the Mayor of Lille Martine Aubry and the Prefect of Hauts-de-France region Michel Lalande at Friday's ceremony AFP

The northern French city of Lille on Friday welcomed 42 Sudanese refugees who were rescued by the Aquarius humanitarian boat in a ceremony conducted by its Socialist mayor, Martine Aubry. France has agreed to take in 78 of the 630 migrants who were on board the ship, which was denied entry to Malta and Italy in June.

"France has decided to grant you refugee status," Aubry told the new Lille residents on Friday. "Today this is the end of a long, extremely difficult and painful odyssey for you and, we all hope, the beginning of a better life that we will assist you with."

She handed them certificates from France's asylum authority, Ofpra, which grant them refugee status and a 10-year residency permit.

Lille proud to accept refugees, Mayor Martine Aubry tweets

The refugees, who are aged between 18 and 32, are to be housed in a former retirement home.

As an introduction to French culture, Aubry watched a video of France's World Cup win with them.

"The France that is welcoming will seem strange to you," central government representative Michel Lalande said. "Alongside those people who welcome you with open arms, there are people who greet you with their arms crossed. But that is how France is. Love her and France will return that love."

"To come to France was my dream for several reasons," 25-year-old biology student Baher said. "For education, for its level of development, for technology ..."

Rejected by Malta, Italy

The Aquarius attracted international attention when it was refused landing rights in Malta and Italy while carrying hundreds of migrants picked up in the Mediterranean Sea.

Most of them came from Eritrea or Sudan, where Omar al-Bashir presides over an authoritarian regime and separatist rebellions have taken place, one leading to the establishment of South Sudan.

Ofpra says it fast-tracked the applications while the migrants were in Spain, which eventually agreed to allow the Aquarius to land.

Despite passing a tough new Immigration law, France agreed to take in a number of the Aquarius's passengers.

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