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Paris migrant camp: A ‘slum’ in the heart of the capital

© AFP / Eric Feferberg | Nearly 400 migrants are living at the makeshift camp in La Chapelle in northern Paris

Text by Charlotte BOITIAUX

Latest update : 2015-06-01

Police have said they are planning the imminent dismantling of a migrant camp in the La Chapelle area of Paris over fears of a disease epidemic. FRANCE 24 visited the camp where close to 400 people live in cramped and squalid conditions.

It is 9.30 on Saturday morning when Saudia emerges from her tent. She manages a smile despite looking still half asleep. The 26-year-old Ethiopian arrived in Paris around a month ago. Like hundreds of others, she decided to make her home at the La Chapelle camp, in the north of the French capital.

A haphazard collection of tents and mattresses beneath the overground Metro tracks, the camp first sprung up in the summer of 2014. Its numbers have grown rapidly, doubling since the beginning of the year.

Rubbish accumulates between mattresses lining the floor while every five minutes or so the ground shakes from the deafening noise of a train passing overhead.

Some of the tents are soaked in urine leaking from portable toilets and urinals nearby. At times, the smell is overwhelming.

‘This place has become a slum!’

Asked to describe conditions in the camp, Saudia simply holds her nose. “But where else can I go in my state?” she says as she places her hand on her belly.

“Pregnant,” she says in French, proud to show her mastery of a word in a language that was completely unknown to her just a few months ago.

Like many of her neighbours, Saudia hopes to stay in France, rather than attempt the journey to the UK – often the preferred destination of migrants travelling to Europe.

“I came by sea from Libya. Once in Italy, I came to France by car,” she says. “Now, I’m tired, but it’s okay. There are doctors nearby [a hospital, Hôpital Lariboisière, is located just a few metres from the camp], there are charities which give us food.”

Some local residents have also taken pity on the migrants.

“Tell them to share the apples and give the clementines to the youngest, they’re full of vitamins,” says an elderly lady after forging a route through the tents and mattresses to handout an armful of fruit.

Mattresses are spread out on the floor of the La Chapelle migrant camp. © AFP / Eric Feferberg

Samira, another Ethiopian who lives in the tent next to Saudia’s, so close that they are touching, grabs an apple before joining the conversation.

“You want to stay here?” she asks her neighbour. "You will be the only one. This place has become a slum!”

The camp’s sanitary conditions are also her biggest complaint.

“People brush their teeth next to people who are urinating,” says the 25-year-old. “To get changed, I have to lock myself in the toilets, but it’s very dirty.”

Neither Samira nor Saudia have been able to take a shower this week.

Whether the migrants stay or go, however, will probably not be down to them. Paris police have made plans to dismantle the camp in the near future, mostly for health reasons.

The Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) humanitarian organisation, whose members make weekly rounds at the camp, also fear the potential risks of the unsanitary conditions.

“For the moment, there are no signs of an epidemic but that does not mean the risk doesn’t exist,” a Médecins du Monde spokesperson told FRANCE 24. “We could see soon see the appearance of scabies, for example.”

Emmaüs Solidarité, an association charged by city officials with coordinating humanitarian aid for the camp’s residents, is also concerned.

“There are 300 to 400 people here today. The situation is untenable,” says Bruno Morel, the association’s president.

“We try to improve their lives; we distribute toothbrushes, blankets and food. But the situation is very precarious. And it is not just the dangers posed by the sanitary conditions, there could also be a fire risk. When you let 400 people live without minimum safety measures, there will always be risks.”

‘No choice’

There is little mingling between the camp’s different nationalities. The Somalis stay on one side, the Sudanese and Eritreans on the other.

All, however, share more or less the same story: the flight through Libya, the crossing of the Mediterranean – a deadly endeavour that claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people in April alone – the arrival in Italy then the finally the journey to France.

Khaled, Majig, Abdulaziz and Ishag, originally from Sudan, arrived in Paris together.

“We had no choice,” says Khaled as he sits on a square of tarmac in the sun. “You know what is going on in Sudan. Why are people surprised to see us here?”

None of them want to be photographed. Indeed, the mere presence of a camera is enough to cause tension in the camp.

“Do you think you are at the zoo?” one migrant says in English from the other side of the camp, leaning on a metal railing.

Where the migrants will go after the camp is dismantled is the question on the minds of both its residents and authorities.

Paris City Hall has insisted on the need to offer accommodation to all the camp’s inhabitants, whether or not they are seeking asylum in France. But with emergency shelters in the capital already at saturation point, where to find such accommodation remains a big problem.

Some of the migrants have already found a solution of their own: making the journey across town to the Austerlitz train station, where another camp has already sprung up.

Whatever happens, no one is thinking about going home.

“I would have preferred to have stayed in Sudan,” says Khaled. “I love my country, but it has become hell there. I will not return as long as there is war. At least here, even sleeping in a tent, I do not risk dying.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

Date created : 2015-06-01

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