In his first six months as president, Macron stressed that France was a land of welcome for refugees, saying he wanted all of them off the streets by the end of 2017. But in January 2018 hundreds of refugees are still sleeping rough in Paris.
In July 2017 a freshly elected Emmanuel Macron said he wanted refugees “off the streets, out of the woods” by the end of the year. On the campaign trail he said France was honoured to welcome refugees. But six months later in Porte de la Chapelle in the northeast of Paris, under bridges and underpasses and all along Avenue President Wilson, small groups of refugees are sheltering from the rain and the cold. Three friends from Afghanistan huddled around a fire, a Yemeni engineer from Sanaa, and a student from Sudan are among the 1,000 refugees that Médécins sans Frontières (MSF) say are still sleeping rough in the French capital.
Aziz from Yemen wept as he talked about his family in Sanaa and the traffic from the Paris ring-road roared overhead. He wants to rejoin the Yemeni community in London but he was sent back to Paris from Calais and he despairs of ever making it to the UK. In the short-term he wants a night under a dry roof – away from the piss-stained mattresses, the rats and the rain. “Every day I go to the shelter,” he said, referring to “La Bulle”, Paris’s official refugee centre in Porte de la Chapelle, “but every day they say to me ‘come back tomorrow’”.
Until August 2017 the area near “La Bulle” had been home to a makeshift camp of some 2,700 refugees. When the camp was dismantled for the 35th time in the summer, some 2,000 of the migrants were bussed to temporary shelters, but the others are now scattered in small groups throughout northeast Paris.
“Macron has done a good job of making the problem invisible,” said Alberto Bialla, a lanky Italian post-doc student who works for Solidarithé, a volunteer group providing coffee, blankets and information, gesturing to where the makeshift camp used to be.
“The camp is gone. The streets are clean. But they are just hiding in small groups, dispersed through the north of the city.”
“There are just as many people coming to us as before,” he said on a rainy Tuesday evening in the neighbourhood. “Sometimes we have 60 people – sometimes 400. The quality of life for the migrants has just got worse since the area got cleaned up."
Police have been given orders not to let refugees settle anywhere. MSF’s chief of mission Corinne Torre told FRANCE 24 stories of refugees’ tents being slashed and their sleeping bags and blankets being stolen – anything to stop them sleeping on the streets. “It’s freezing – its winter and their health problems are getting worse,” she said. Noor, 28, from Sudan, who’d been sleeping by the canal in Jaurès, had woken to police drenching his possessions with water guns that morning. As he drank coffee and shared information with friends, he was hoping to get a blanket for the freezing night ahead.
Refugees sleeping rough in Paris
“Does Macron know what the police are doing?” asked Anne-Marie Bredin of Solidarithé Migrants Wilson. “Sometimes the police spray the blankets and sleeping bags that we buy for them with tear gas. You don’t have to do that. They move them on – but where are they supposed to go?”
“They pretend that they’re taking everyone in and saying France is a terre d’accueil (land of welcome) and then in reality they’re doing inhumane things to people,” she added.
“Physically it’s unwelcoming; there’s no food, no toilets, no blankets, no place to sleep. Worse than that – even if they sleep on the street they’re continually prodded - stand up stand up!! So they sleep standing up – so that’s torture and then the bureaucracy to get to the prefecture and to make a request for asylum is very complicated.”
Political refugees and economic migrants
Macron’s government has vowed to expedite asylum requests for legitimate political prisoners but wants to accelerate expulsions of economic migrants.
Interior Minister Gérard Collomb told local charities in early December that immigration officers would visit emergency shelters and review the paperwork of the people living there, a move which sparked outrage.
French migrant charity Cimade said the move infringes peoples’ basic human rights and NGOs are concerned this will deter migrants from seeking shelter out of fear of being sent home. “We don’t know what’s going on in the shelters anymore,” Torre told FRANCE 24. “This could just be an opportunity to round people up and deport them.”
Collomb defended the move in an interview with RTL radio in December. “We don’t know who’s in these centres,” he said. “We estimate a third of them are political prisoners … two thirds are economic migrants.”
France is expected to debate a tougher bill on asylum and immigration in early 2018. Bredin says she’s apprehensive but that the government needs to give a clear message. “People have risked their lives to come here,” she said. “We can’t take everyone – France has its own share of problems, including homelessness … but even if it’s a hard policy, it needs to be clear.”
Not all of those in Porte de la Chapelle are applying for asylum in France. Some are hoping to make it to the UK via Calais, others are in legal limbo as they have no papers (no passports or ID) while others plan to go to Belgium or Germany or Italy.
Queuing for coffee in Porte de la Chapelle
Some, however, are living under shelter and hanging out with friends in the area. Ahmad, 28, from Sudan is living in a centre and waiting to hear about his asylum request and Aliomar, 30, from Jalalabad in Afghanistan is living in “La Bulle” after two weeks on the streets, having arrived in France after a failed asylum request in Sweden. “France is better than all countries in Europe. We know they have a good president here,” he said. But not all of his Afghan friends have been so lucky. Some of them have been here for three years, “and they have no good decision….'They say we don’t have work, no house, we sleep in the street – better we die in Afghanistan’.”
The long journey to France
Noor doesn’t seem daunted by the idea of spending a Paris winter on the streets. He talks about his flight from the war in Sudan, his village being burnt and the long journey to Europe via Libya. All of his friends share horrific stories from Libya – of kidnapping by the militias, torture, forced labour, extortion rackets and imprisonment. “All they [the militias] want is money,” said Noor.
What happens if you can’t pay?
His friend Mazim removed his scarf and undid his collar.
“This,” he said, revealing a four-inch scar on his throat.
The worst part of his journey, Noor says, was Libya. But the thought of going back to Sudan is unthinkable. “I will die,” he says simply.
In the meantime, despite the French government’s humanist rhetoric, for Noor and his friends the start of 2018 promises only freezing weather, increasing uncertainty and sleepless nights on the streets.
Date created : 2018-01-07