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“We need help from God,” Say Migrants in Paris Camps

Migrant camps have gripped no other Western European capital as viciously as Paris. This winter, a wave of political mobilization signaled that this marginalized group was at the end of its tether.
Migrants in Paris Camps

Paris, FRANCE – OCTOBER 31, 2016 : Urban migrant camp in northeastern Paris near the Stalingrad subway station. © Frederic Legrand /

May 03, 2023 10:24 EDT

For four nights in December, 400 migrants occupied the bustling square in front of the Council of State in central Paris, the highest public administration court in the country. The group, made up mostly of isolated minors, had been living under a bridge on the outskirts of the city in a makeshift camp of battered tents. 

The youth had been homeless for up to six months, despite advocacy groups’ repeated calls for their shelter. So, during the night of December 2, 2022 volunteers assisted in the relocation of the migrants, their few belongings, and their dilapidated lodgings to where they would be impossible to ignore. 

“People don’t know how we live,” Ali, who is from the Ivory Coast and had been sleeping in the camp for three months, told me. “So, we have come here”. 

Joseph, who came to France from Liberia, had no other option but to live under the bridge. Like many of his fellow campmates, he was waiting for a meeting with the authorities to receive refugee status. But the process can take months, leaving asylum seekers in a precarious limbo. “That is the problem. If you don’t have anyone to help you, you just have to stay outside.” 

As he spoke, he warmed his hands and feet with a subway grate blowing hot air from below. The air offered a brief respite from the cold. 

A chronic problem

“We reached a critical point” Nikolaï Posner, a representative of Utopia 56, a migrant aid non-profit who helped organize the protest, said of their decision to occupy the square. Given the state’s failure to provide shelter, he told me, they had no other choice. Amid freezing temperatures, the situation had become desperate. The camp was rife with illness, and someone, he said, had tried to take their own life.  

On the fifth day of the protest, the youth were placed in temporary emergency housing. But the city’s inability to implement a long-term solution faced with a steady influx of migrants has resulted in a chronic problem. 

The first camp in Paris was established in 2015. Since then, the city received thousands of migrants in the spillover from the gradual dismantling of the Calais Jungle.  Faced with extremely limited temporary shelter options, migrants are forced to pitch tents to survive. Gradually, a steady stream of new arrivals pitch tents too, forming a camp. This then attracts the attention of local aid organizations who provide food, water and medical assistance. When the camp becomes too large, the police are called to demolish the camp and evict migrants. At times, thousands of inhabitants are offered temporary emergency accommodation. 

But Alexandre François, a legal assistant at La Cimade, a non-governmental organization, explains that sometimes migrants are only given shelter for a few days. Furthermore, the shelters are often in deplorable conditions. Also, the authorities cannot account for everyone. Those who arrive at the camp just hours after the evacuation are left homeless. Those in government accommodation are also forced back on the street when the clock runs out.

Many migrants have their asylum claim refused on the basis that France was not the first EU country they landed in. They end up remaining undocumented, without the possibility of stable housing or steady work.

And so, the cycle—which has gripped no other Western European capital so viciously—continues. 

At the end of their tether 

Many camps have erupted into spontaneous protests. Last year, the police cleared central Paris of hundreds of protesting migrants. For Oriane Sebillote, a member of migrant advocacy group Paris d’Exil, both instances are part of a wider pattern: facing difficult conditions, the migrants are increasingly refusing to stay silent. 

The camp, pitched underneath the overground rail lines near La Chapelle metro station, was 2022’s last. Late last year, it was razed by the police. They expelled more than 700 migrants, most of them from Afghanistan. 

Daoud, from Sudan, had been living there for two weeks. He told me the living conditions were tough, and that he lacked basic provisions. “The smallest things that I need, I can’t get them,” said this migrant. The highly contagious scabies disease ripped through the camp because of terrible sanitary conditions. “When I wake up, I don’t even have a place to brush my teeth,” he added. 

“I don’t want to be homeless.” Daoud began to cry and said, “We need help from God.” 

Before the evacuation, Daoud told of daily friction with the police. Despite the freezing temperatures, they systematically extinguished small fires throughout the camp. Posner says his organization is aware of routine police violence, a staple of life in the camps.

“There is no solution because the French government doesn’t want a solution”. For Posner, the issue—and what blocks its resolution—is entirely political. From the heavily funded Frontex, the EU border agency mired in scandal, to the very real barrier of needing a mobile phone to set up asylum appointments, migrants get a clear message. Posner says the message to those who are already here is simple: you are unwelcome. To those who are thinking of coming, the message is don’t come.

Between 2015 and 2020, one mega-camp operated at a time. It grew over months to house thousands of migrants. However, things have changed since French police cleared more than 2,000 people from a makeshift migrant camp in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis near the Stade de France. This November 2020 police operation has led to the formation of smaller camps that appear and disappear quickly. Migrants are now playing a cat and mouse game with the police.

As a result, migrants do not know where to find shelter. In the hours after La Chapelle’s demolition, around a dozen migrants arrived, each clutching a few bags in their hands. They stood amidst the debris not knowing where to go. Clearly, they had no options but to sleep rough in the cold. Sadly, they had become part of the cycle of misery and insecurity for migrants in Paris that seems to have no end in sight.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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