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Undocumented immigrants seek shelter, security and status

Text by Perrine MOUTERDE

Latest update : 2010-02-25

For the past seven months, hundreds of undocumented immigrants have made an old social security building in Paris their home. Together, they are trying to get working papers to stay in the land of their dreams.

The collective meal, served around noon, has ended. The vast room, situated in Paris’ northern 18th district, is slowly emptying.

These undocumented immigrants, most of whom hold temporary jobs, set up home in a former social security building in July 2009, after they were evacuated from their old spot outside the Paris stock exchange in the heart of the French capital.

All members of CSP 75, a collective that claims to have 3,000 members, these immigrants continue to search for a way to stay and work legitimately in France.

Their current residence, a five-storey building with two basements and a big courtyard, shelters immigrants of at least 21 nationalities. In the early afternoon, the immense, labyrinthine corridors are calm.

In one room, a woman is lying down. An Algerian national, she works night shifts in a restaurant. "Everyone here works," says Anzoumane Sissoko, a CSP 75 spokesperson. "They work all sorts of jobs: as cleaners, carers for the elderly, construction workers, in restaurants…of course, like many these days, some are between jobs.”

‘I cannot return…without anything, without money’

Cohabitation requires organization. The electricity and water supply was not cut when the social security changed premises in Feb. 2009, and is still functioning, though there are no bathrooms, as this used to be a commercial building. To wash themselves, the residents have to use the public baths in the neighbourhood or fill buckets of hot water and lug them to the toilets

Rooms are set up in old offices, with mattresses strewn on the ground and the odd television and or hotplate around. Some rooms sleep between 10 to15 people. "At the beginning, we all slept on the ground in the hall,” explains Sissoko. “But since November, we have settled in the rooms since it got cold.” One part of the building is reserved for women.

Committees have also been created within the collective. There are some in charge of the kitchen, others handle security or relations with local authorities. “The important thing is to assign jobs based on people’s availability,” says Sissoko. “Then, they are asked if they can and want to take on the responsibilities.”

Some residents are gathered in the office overlooking the hall. Here, a team of volunteers go through the files of the undocumented immigrants who, once a month, have to go to the local police-cum-administrative office, called the ‘prefecture’ in France. They await the questions… Residence permit? Three-month-old receipts without work authorization? The most dreaded words are "OQTF," short for "obligation de quitter le territoire français" in French or literally “obliged to leave the French territory”.

Camara, a native of Mali who came to France in 2001, put in a residency application about 18 months ago. Since then, he’s had no news. “My brother arrived before me here; he has his papers. Me, I tried and tried and tried… at times, I feel I can’t do it anymore. But I cannot return to Mali without anything, without money. Now that I’m here, why can’t I stay here?”

“There’s no criteria for granting people their papers – it all rests with the prefecture and it’s very arbitrary,” says Sissoko. “Some who just arrive get their papers, while someone who’s been here 20 years doesn’t."

‘You can’t sit back and do nothing’

 In 2006, a French law that granted papers to undocumented immigrants who had been in the country for 10 years was repealed. “Only Article 40 remains… ," says Sissoko.

 This article of the law was modified by a circular in Jan. 2008 which, under very specific circumstances, allows employed immigrants to obtain legal documentation.

 The CSP 75 has tried to address the situation. Last year, the collective managed to convince about 250 businesses that employed some of the collective’s undocumented workers to try to help them. But faced with the risks businesses face for hiring illegal workers, the effort was met with little success. "In the end, only six agreed,” said Sissoko.

In the office, the phone rings. Diarra, one of the collective members, was arrested earlier this week and must be deported to Mali that afternoon. The operation is deferred due to an air traffic controller strike at French airports. Diallo Koundenecoun, a CSP 75 spokesman, is already preparing the response. "We sent out the message, we had a delegation of 1,500 people ready to go to Roissy [airport],” he says. “They would have needed at least 600 police officers to stop us…" Sissoko is hopeful: Diarra should be able to appeal the deportation and to remain in France, he says.

"You cannot sit back and do nothing,” says Ahmadou Meite, a member of CSP 75 and himself without papers. “We live in France, we work in France, we contribute to the economy. We want undocumented immigrants to leave the shadows. Here, we suffer together, we sleep together, we fight together."

Sissoko agrees. “We can’t achieve anything without fighting,” she says. And so, every Wednesday, without fail, the self-appointed “ministry for regularizing undocumented immigrants” parades the streets of Paris.



Date created : 2010-02-25