Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1319, (10 - 16 November 2016)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1319, (10 - 16 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Refugees cleared from Paris

Almost four thousand migrants, many of them refugees from war or persecution, were cleared from makeshift camps in the streets of the French capital last Friday, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the wake of the clearance of the so-called “Jungle” camp in Calais at the end of last month, the French authorities moved to clear a camp of some 3,800 migrants and refugees, most of them Afghans or from Sub-Saharan Africa, from the northern arrondissements of the French capital Paris last week.

Morning commuters in Paris last Friday had their journeys to work disrupted by the clearance of the camp, as some 600 police accompanied by 80 buses descended on the streets near the Stalingrad and Jaurès metro stations not far from the busy Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est train stations, in order to clear the migrants.

 In many cases these are people who are refugees from war, persecution or poverty or people whose precise legal status has yet to be determined.Both the Stalingrad and Jaurès metro stations were closed throughout the operation and traffic on the Paris metro system during the busy early morning rush hours was disturbed.

According to reports in the French media, the evacuation, carried out without warning and by force, began before dawn and continued throughout much of the morning on 4 November and was intended to relocate the people to 74 hostels throughout the country.

While the evacuation had not been announced in advance, word had apparently gone round that the operation was expected as many had packed up their few belongings in advance of the rubbish trucks and bulldozers sent in to clear shanty camps that extended along the nearby Canal Saint-Martin and about a hundred yards along the Boulevard de la Chapelle.

An earlier operation in Calais, which cleared some seven thousand people, possibly more, from a camp on the outskirts of the English Channel port, had also relocated the migrants and refugees to hostels throughout France, with those refusing to leave being removed by force by the French police and security forces.

Reports have since emerged in the French press that over a thousand teenage migrants and refugees, most of them from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, who refused to leave the Calais camp were quelled with tear gas and forced onto buses to undisclosed locations last week, with others believed to be in hiding in the surrounding countryside.

The first camps in the streets of Paris appeared at the beginning of 2015, with residents of the 18th, 19th and 20th arrondissements of the French capital getting used to seeing shanty encampments housing hundreds if not thousands of people springing up under bridges, in public parks, and in the streets.

The French police have been clearing the camps periodically since the summer of 2015, carrying out 29 separate operations between 2 June 2015 and last week’s operation on 4 November that have involved the relocation of 23,000 people from the streets of Paris to hostels throughout the country.

However, with an estimated 100 people now arriving in the French capital every day and making their way to camps in the north of the capital, the numbers have soon regrown. This has given rise to a humanitarian and sanitary crisis since the camps have no facilities and the people living in them, in many cases not having made any formal applications for refugee status or asylum, are believed to have been receiving assistance only from local charities.

The camps have often been divided by country of origin. People originally from Afghanistan have often made their way to the area around Square Villemin in the 10th arrondissement near the Gare de l’Est, giving the area the name of “Little Kabul.”

Those from Sub-Saharan Africa, often from Sudan and Eritrea, have often preferred to camp out in the streets towards the Barbès and Goutte d’Or districts in the 18th arrondissement near the Gare du Nord, setting up tents under overhead metro lines or constructing shacks along the nearby Canal Saint-Martin.

Astonishingly, the French authorities have only recently decided to react to the crisis in a way appropriate to its scale, with the Socialist Party mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, last week announcing the opening of a hostel at Porte de la Chapelle in the north of Paris that should go some way to replacing the present ad hoc arrangements.

Disused schools and other facilities have previously been temporarily requisitioned by the authorities to house the flow of migrants and refugees, but the new hostel, a more permanent facility, will have more decent sleeping facilities along with a canteen and study and leisure areas for unaccompanied people.

Families are to be sent to a special facility in Ivry-sur-Seine outside Paris from January 2017, according to reports in the French press.

However, though the new Paris facility has a dedicated reception centre designed to process 50 to 100 new arrivals every day, it has sleeping facilities for only some 400 persons. This means that even with the new facility replacing the present bricolage of largely inadequate and temporary structures, people arriving in Paris in the coming weeks will still have to ready themselves for forced relocation to other parts of France.

Prior to last week’s clearance operation and the planned opening of appropriate reception facilities for migrants and refugees in Paris, residents have often found themselves at a loss for words when asked to explain why their city, unlike many others in Western Europe receiving similar or greater numbers of people, has been so signally slow or unwilling to receive them.

Visitors to Paris, often alighting at the Gare du Nord or Gare de l’Est railway stations, have often been shocked at the images of squalor and human misery that have greeted them as they arrive in a city that still likes to pride itself on its humanitarian traditions and social services.

Even in the absence of such horrified external reactions, magnified by the desolate spectacle of refugee families, sometimes bearing cardboard signs with the words “Syrian family” scrawled upon them in French or English, forced to beg on the Paris underground system, it might have been expected that the authorities would have acted sooner to remedy the crisis.

Thousands of people being allowed to camp out for months at a time in cardboard shacks in the streets of the capital is clearly a recipe for all manner of abuses, from vulnerable people being preyed upon by criminal elements to a potential public health emergency as conditions worsen in the winter weather.

However, the crisis of the Paris migrants, like the earlier crisis of the thousands of people trapped in unsanitary and desperate conditions at the “Jungle” camp in Calais, perhaps simply bears further witness to the difficulties the French authorities have been experiencing in managing the large numbers of people pouring into the country.

 Worsening political and economic conditions in Southwest Asia, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa have led to unprecedented numbers of people arriving in Western Europe from these areas as part of what has been described as the worst crisis of its kind since the Second World War.

The clearance of the “Jungle” camp in Calais last month came at the end of years of failed or temporary solutions, and though the relocation of the camp’s seven thousand people to reception centres across France has been advertised as solving the problem, few believe that further measures will not be necessary in order to house the continuing flow of people across the continent.

Announcing the clearance of the “Jungle” camp on 29 October and the distribution of the people living in it to reception centres across France, French President François Hollande said that “we cannot tolerate the migrant camps any longer.”

However, there have been reports of these reception centres, set up in requisitioned buildings such as former army barracks, disused medical facilities and out-of-season holiday resorts, being attacked by local people who have described the requisitions as having been carried out without consultation.

While it is to be hoped that the operations carried out over recent weeks will indeed result in the migrants and refugees being found appropriate housing as their longer-term future is decided, for the time being the crisis has not presented France in a positive light.

“There’s been no will to help,” one official from the French Bureau d’Accueil et d’Accompagnement des Migrants (BAAM), an aid group, told the US newspaper the New York Times last week. “There’s been a total denial of the problem and a denial of responsibility. Paris has hardly been a “city of refuge’” for these refugees.

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