New centres offer an alternative after French authorities have destroyed ad-hoc refugee camps in a policy that is supposed to be aimed at discouraging the arrival of more people displaced by war. Yet many refugees are still living like ghosts.
It’s a cold morning in the southeastern suburb of Ivry, on the outskirts of Paris. Dozens of builders are cutting wooden boards and nailing them together, hastily building six small “villages”. These homes are being erected to shelter the growing number of female refugees living, up until this week, on the streets of the French capital.
As they begin to arrive, the first few women hide their faces behind their hijabs, suggesting a deep sense of shame over their situation. One of the women seems very young, and carries her little baby in a large flowered red blanket.
Every room is filled with small bunk beds and will fit up to eight people. The walls are a stark white and smell of fresh paint, ready and waiting for the women and their children to start to construct their lives anew.
So far, only part of the complex is done; and only the first two families have moved in. Yet the plans are ambitious. Work is due to be completed within two months, and up to 400 people will be able to live in the buildings. And each family will have a separate room and a bathroom.
Already, there’s a waiting list.
“Since November, 129 single women, 70 couples and 76 couples with children have been registered [on the waiting list] in our housing system,” says Bruno Morel, the general director of the Emmaüs Solidarité charity that runs the centre.
Founded in 1954, Emmaüs Solidarité is one of the largest French charities that are helping with housing and social integration for poor people and refugees all over France.
The rate of requests for housing has increased since the beginning of this year. Most are from single women who made the arduous journey alone; in some cases their husbands have either been killed, or are still trapped inside Syria. Some are pregnant or have very young babies. All seem exhausted by the long trip to France.
“The idea is to create a place where every newly arrived migrant can be welcomed and offered dignified, humane shelter,” Morel said.
“All the families and women who arrive at the reception centre for migrants in the northeast of Paris will be transferred here and will receive medical care, advice on how to apply for asylum. But moreover, they will be given a chance to have a rest after a very exhausting and dangerous journey to Europe.”
Single men only have the right to stay for about ten days in the new humanitarian centres, before being either transferred on to reception centres across the country, or deported back to their homeland. Families, however, are offered more protection and can be housed in the centre for longer periods, up to several months.
There is a growing perception among the French public, fuelled by right-wing political rhetoric, that there is a “wave” of immigration in the country. This is partly due to the fact that the refugee population is particularly visible around the border regions – on the Italian border or in Calais, where many camped out for months in the vain hope of crossing to Britain – as well as in certain neighbourhoods of Paris, where they tend to be concentrated. Last year, France issued 227,500 residence permits – 4.6 percent more than the previous year – but still falling well short of the massive flood of migrants that is often portrayed by the politicians eying the upcoming presidential race.
Failure to find a solution
After years of pursuing a policy of destroying ad-hoc refugee camps, President Francois Hollande and the Socialist government seems to be willing to reverse its view and start to protect migrants. Last November, the notorious “Jungle” shantytown in the northern port town of Calais, where approximately 8,000 migrants were living, was demolished. Some men had been living there for over a decade, after being stopped on their way to Britain. Young men were regularly killed while hiding in the wheel wells of trucks, trying to sneak their way illegally cross the Channel and reach England. 5,000 migrants were evacuated from the camp and transferred to some 450 reception centres around the country. The others just vanished and disappeared into the cities nearby.
But the demolition didn’t solve the dilemma, it simply displaced the homeless refugees. Days later, 3,800 people, mostly Afghans, Sudanese and Eritreans, pitched their tents and mattresses under an overhead metro line in the heart of Paris.
The makeshift camps suddenly became the most visible symbol of the country’s struggle to accommodate migrants and refugees. But with the right-wing opposition arguing that any support and shelter might entice more migrants to come to France, the government struggled to find an alternative for the refugees
After months of hesitation, Hollande finally decided to shut down the bulging new urban camp in the capital, saying in December that “such camps were not worthy of France”.
He also played down concerns that the closure of the so-called Calais “Jungle” had driven its residents to the sidewalks of Paris:
“Most migrants recently amassing around the metro station are part of a ‘new migratory stream’ coming from Libya in these past weeks and months.”
The government insisted that France would shelter only those it deems to be asylum-seekers and deport those it views as not having the right to claim asylum.
This stance has drawn the ire of charities working with refugees. They argue France is putting an end to the long-held fundamental right of asylum. The migrants in Calais and Paris include war refugees, as well as people fleeing poverty in their homelands and seeking jobs. According to the local Paris authorities, some 19,000 migrants have been shifted to temporary housing since June 2015.
The French NGO Médecins du Monde, for instance, said in January that it might not stay involved in the process “if the centre does become the place where migrants will be selected – those who get the possibility to stay and those who will be expelled – because it might mark the end of the right asylum in France.”
At the new centre for women and children, playgrounds will be created for the children. They will be taught French in special classes. The idea is to prepare them to join the regular French educational system.
The prefab houses were designed to be adapted to the needs of each family, with areas ranging from 12.5 to 45 m². Six large round tents in the centre of the complex will shelter the collective activities and will serve as catering areas. An aim of the complex is to offer a large range of social, medical and educational care. Doctors, paediatricians, gynaecologists and psychologists from Samu Social, a municipal humanitarian emergency service, and Médecins du Monde, will provide health care.
Hiding like ghosts
The opening of the Ivry centre for women and children follows the opening of a centre for men in the La Chapelle neighbourhood in northeast Paris. Yet the two centres fall far short of solving all of the problems with which the capital is confronted.
Many refugees have become ghosts in the city. Some try to get a place in the shelter for three or five days. Meanwhile they have to hide in the streets and avoid the police. The official objective was to prevent the refugee camps reappearing in the streets of the capital and to absorb the flow of 50 to 70 exiles who arrive in Paris each day.
Most have been in Paris for two weeks, some since the day before. Those we met in the streets were young. Yunus is 19 years old, he was only 16 when he left Eritrea.
“The journey was so long, I am so tired, but I still dream on the day when I will be able to send money to my family back in the country,” Yunus said. He looks thin, even scrawny. His eyes seem to hold all the horrors they saw on their way.
Next to him is Asami, 20, who covers part of his face with a long jacket to keep out the icy cold air. Asami comes from Sudan. Both teenagers just arrived the previous week. They come overland, crossing the Sahara into Libya.
“We spent eight months stuck in a refugee centre near Tripoli,” Asami said.
The final stage of their long journey was made by boat to Italy and then on foot to France.
“One night a man came and took a group of us, we went to the beach and climbed on a small and old boat. I was so terrified, women were praying, kids were crying. A long nightmare to Europe.”
Now they are waiting to enter the La Chapelle reception shelter. All tell of their fear of police and the cold.
“They put their light on our faces and take our blankets. We have to hide deeper to avoid them,” Asami said.
In another street nearby, a young man is trying to sleep at the entrance of a building, but is disturbed continuously by the flow of people going in and out. Bassam comes from Afghanistan. He is only 16 years old, but has slept in the streets of Paris ever since he arrived.
“I don’t know what to do. I have been registered by the Red Cross, but until now, they didn’t help. I just got some food give by neighbors. But it seems that I haven’t access to the reception center for adults and there is no place in the others for minors. So I have to stay outside and wait.”
It is time for dinner, but Bassam doesn’t have anything to eat. A group of men pass in the street and tell him there is a food distribution nearby. All go there, take some soup and bread and quickly disappear, like phantoms who are not meant to be seen.
The system is so difficult to understand that nobody knows why some may enter while others are blocked. The municipality of Paris has nevertheless insisted on “the unconditional welcome.” Today, the authorities find it “impossible” that some must wait for more than twenty-four hours before they can enter. Emmaüs Solidarité says the same, and asserts that nobody is turned away at the entrance, unless appearing after 18:00 in the evening.
But even yesterday, there were still men sleeping in a tent near the new official shelter.