Virus threat stalks Paris migrant camps


Aubervilliers (France) (AFP)

With the end of France's coronavirus lockdown, the migrants who came to the country for a better future are back on the streets.

Turfed out of the state-organised accommodation that housed them during the confinement period, the migrants are again scraping by in camps north of Paris, even though the dire hygiene conditions expose them to much higher contagion risks.

Food, water and toilets are hard to come by, aid groups say, and social distancing is impossible as the number of closely packed tents along the Saint-Denis canal grows larger by the day.

"You cannot live in here," said Moussa, a 27-year-old Somalian at the camp in Aubervilliers.

"Every day you see somebody sick, because here you know it is not clean and we don't have (anything) to eat.

"You don't have shower, cleaning shower, it's very hard."

The camp is the latest of dozens that have emerged in the capital over the years, despite regular evacuations by police and vows by government officials that migrant settlements will not be tolerated.

After the COVID-19 lockdown was announced in March, authorities cleared migrants from camps in Paris and near the northern port city of Calais -- where many hope to cross the Channel for Britain -- and put them in gyms, hotels and other accommodation.

But after stay-at-home orders were lifted in May, they soon found themselves sleeping rough again.

"When lockdown ended, we saw more people arriving. We realised because we didn't have enough meals," said Philippe Caro, a volunteer for the help group Solidarite migrants Wilson, which distributes 900 meals every Tuesday.

A month ago, the solidarity group counted 166 tents in the area around the Stains bridge. Now there are more than 400.

Further along the canal, two smaller camps have also taken root, leading aid groups to estimate that around 1,000 migrants are living in tents in the area.

- 'There is not one metre' -

Most of the migrants at the camps in Aubervilliers, located in the heavily immigrant Seine-Saint-Denis department where COVID-19 rates are among the highest, are from Afghanistan or Horn of Africa countries such as Somalia or Sudan.

"The government says you must stay one metre (apart)... but look here, there is not one metre," Abdul Qahar, a 20-year-old Afghan, said from behind his face mask.

"Here is the original corona(virus)," he added, pointing to clustered tents, rubbish on the ground and open-air toilets.

Two water fountains, nine urinals and three portable toilets have been installed by the authorities at the camp, but the facilities are deemed woefully inadequate by the Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) NGO.

Paul Alauzy, a health worker for the group, said that out of 10 consultations on Friday morning, the group sent four people for COVID-19 tests at the nearby Bichat hospital.

Many of the migrants have been living in various makeshift camps over the years.

"We had also dreams that we would go to school, study or maybe later have a good life later, you know, maybe some good job, doctor or maybe engineer," said Qahar, who said he fled the war in his country 10 years ago.

"But now, the dreams are broken. In this situation, we cannot do anything."

-Masks and hand sanitiser-

The regional Ile-de-France prefecture's communications department told AFP that the migrants had received face masks and hand sanitiser, but that their responsibility stopped there -- it was now up to municipal officials to step in.

If history is any guide, the tents are likely to be torn down, and the migrants invited to board buses for other areas of France where they will be offered shelter and have their administrative situations looked into.

But often migrants hide to avoid being taken away instead of risk having an asylum request rejected. And since the housing is not long-term, people often make their way back to Paris.

Aid groups say the coronavirus crisis should galvanise authorities to support permanent housing solutions to break the cycle of camps and evacuations.

Earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights condemned France for the "inhumane and degrading living conditions" of three asylum-seekers who were living in streets with no resources.