At the Crossroads
Porte de la Chapelle is a large and unsightly crossroads on the edge of the Périphérique ring-road, where the city of Paris meets the beginning of the sprawling banlieues. To the south, the main road into central Paris leads to the budding hipster bars and more established African markets of the 18e Arrondissement. The shiny white wedding-cake dome of Sacré Coeur glimmers to the west, above dejected tower blocks and social-housing estates, while ramps rise to the north to connect with motorways heading towards Lille, Calais, England. And to the east, grey, neglected buildings gradually transform over a kilometre or so into the smart new area of Rosa Parks, where new, generously proportioned flats are clad in extravagant silver or floral decor.
Porte de la Chapelle is a gathering place for the ‘new’ migrants and refugees of Paris — the ones people mean when referring to the ‘crisis’ — although it’s not the only one. Across the city there is an untold number of people in transit. Pushed back from the UK border by the Calais evictions last October, many hope to move on to Germany or Sweden, or simply seek to somehow negotiate the obstacles of the over-stretched French asylum system and the Dublin Agreement. If your fingerprints have been taken in another European country, you have little chance of remaining ‘officially’ in France.
Some have family or help or a place to stay. Some have been housed by the state or a charity, or after too much hardship and exposure have decided to take their chances in the wildly varying ‘Centres d’Accueil‘ outside of the capital, the reception centres to which many of the Calais people were taken. But far too many slept in the grey Paris winter, living from day to day.
Last summer Paris and its police took a series of violent actions against informal camps under raised metro lines in more central areas, such as Stalingrad and Jaures. Small ‘tent cities’ were raided nightly. Sleeping bags were hosed or destroyed, tents were confiscated. A larger camp at Stalingrad was completely erased and its site fenced in. In November, while the violence still continued, a limited response came in the form of La Bulle (the bubble), a ‘humanitarian’ centre with 400 beds at Porte de la Chapelle.
Funded by the state and managed by the Christian charity Emmaus, La Bulle is intended to provide basic emergency shelter for up to 10 days. It is no holiday camp. Housing is divided between a sub-divided concrete box formerly owned by the national railway network and stacks of containers inside a large, orange-and-white plastic bubble. It’s a horrible place. But there are three meals a day, limited access to courses such as basic French, and unlike the detention centres it allows its residents to walk out into the capital city during the day (doors are locked at night). It was instantly filled to capacity, and has remained so ever since.
From this, a second, informal camp — a camp which is forbidden to be a camp — has crept into existence around the grim grey crossroads. In the morning, people seeking accommodation form lines at the gates of La Bulle, while others queue for coffee, sugary tea and Nutella sandwiches. Groups such as Utopia 56 and Solidarité Migrants Wilson are sometimes able to hand out pastries and fruit as well. There is no access to clean water at the crossroads. There is no toilet. And there are no tents.
“A Stick in the Ground”
Danika, a tireless volunteer who has been active in Paris refugee solidarity work for over a year, shows us tents stacked in a tiny cellar, one of many across the city that she has ‘borrowed’ from friends to store donations as they come in. “It’s Paris. If you put a stick in the ground, the police destroy it.” She tries to visit Porte de la Chapelle late at night as often as possible, seeking out the new arrivals who have little more than the clothes they arrived in, and handing out blankets and sleeping bags when she can. Those with nothing lie in rows across the ventilation grills over the Metro, where warm gusts of air take the edge off the February cold.
There are probably several hundred people based around the crossroad: estimates given by refugees and volunteers ranged from 150 to 300. Many stick together in groups of the same nationality. On the north side, on the plates of the main road itself and separated from the traffic by thin metal barriers, are Afghan men. Under the flyover to the east are around thirty Sudanese people. Here the city has imposed one of the ugliest examples of hostile architecture I’ve ever seen. Where people were lying, they’ve placed a number of large boulders, seemingly laid out so that a man cannot stretch out at full length.
There are also Sudanese people in a small piece of wasteland just south of the main road, behind a six-foot wall. Halfway along, a small ladder has been placed to allow the sleepers to climb over. “I climbed up once”, says Danika. “but they told me to go away.” This is as close as Porte de la Chapelle has to privacy, but here nothing can be permanent. A couple of days before I arrived, the police interrupted evening meal distributions out of the back of a van, threatening the volunteers with a fine of €135.
The volunteers persist: most here would go hungry otherwise. But the goalposts are continuously shifting. They can’t always park in the same place. They can’t be sure that they will be allowed back tomorrow. The policy seems to be to allow a tiny amount of aid to trickle in and indeed, if that didn’t happen, hospitalisations due to hunger and exposure would surely follow.
However, perhaps because of the public shame of the camp at Calais, the authorities are forcing everyone to work on a purely contingent, day-to-day basis, with no possibility to claim ownership of the dismal space, to build or to claim the most basic human needs.
I speak to three Pakistani men who stayed for a long period in Calais. They’ve just arrived at Porte de la Chapelle, and they need drinking water. At this time of night, the only place to buy this is a kebab shop: I purchase the last few small bottles, and a litre of Coke. “If you went to Calais, you must remember us! We were famous. We ran the ——- ———!”
This was a rickety chipboard construction with a noisy generator where volunteers often went for curries and hot tea. They don’t explain where they spent the last four months, but they’re cheerful. They have a plan to move on to somewhere else as soon as possible. One has lived for a long time in the UK, and his Pakistani accent is mixed with North London. They’re pleased that I have been their customer in the past, and they promise that when we meet again — in London, of course — the drinks will be on them.
The people I speak to, all seekers after asylum from countries with severe unrest, are not all cheerful. But they are friendly, polite and well-informed. Two very young Somali men ask about the Dublin agreement after Brexit: will the UK still use the EU fingerprint database? I have no idea, but try to explain that it doesn’t look good. As in Calais, the signs of strain are on everybody’s face, and due to the scattered, uncertain nature of the ‘camp’ it’s difficult to carry out distributions with dignity or personal contact.
Instead, we stand nervously grouped around our small bags of provisions — pants and socks one day, basic wash-and-shave kit the next — handing out the stuff in the dark as rapidly as we can. There have been fights, particularly in bad weather, and we don’t want any trouble with the police. People say ‘thank you’ or ‘merci’ and move away quickly. A French volunteer greets us as he goes to join his group. ‘Des caleçons (underwear)? It’s good. They are needed.’
People are waiting at Porte de la Chapelle because that is their best chance of entering even temporary shelter in Paris. It’s not the only site however. Other groups gather across a spider’s web stretching down through the poorer, more diverse neighbourhoods of central Paris. On the canal near Stalingrad, the ‘Collectif Petit Dej’ de Flandres’ runs a basic but relaxed breakfast every morning. People who sleep in unseen corners of the busy metropolis come and go, chatting and bringing their news. They’re glad to see that a list of useful contacts has finally been translated into Arabic, and the small pile of photocopies quickly runs out.
“A few months ago we were doing more than a thousand breakfasts” says Zelda, a student who volunteers every Friday morning. “Now, here, it’s around thirty, but there are many other places.” A few of the refugees here have found housing in cheap hotels, but they come by to say hello anyway. The baguettes are donated, and some local bakeries bring sacks of yesterday’s pastries. When we clear up, I return the trestle table to a man in a local office, who stores it overnight.
One Day at a Time
There are no big groups working on the ground with the homeless refugees and migrants, but there are literally dozens of small ones, some partly funded or supported by groups with UK links such as Help Refugees and Care for Calais. Those lucky enough to get in enter the more formal, yet basic aid structures provided by Emmaus and France Terre d’Asile, a charity which stands for asylum seekers’ rights. Others are forced to rely on these small solidarity efforts set up by those Parisians who see them as neighbours.
There are other, more politicised groups working towards longer-term solutions to the situation. Since the 1980s, groups like Collectif des Sans Papiers have organised as an unofficial trade union and campaigning group for people without clear leave to remain. Their work has helped to bring about occasional amnesties for undocumented people, and protect basic workers’ rights for people who have lived and worked in France for years, sometimes decades. In a city where endemic institutional racism has once again sparked civil unrest after a police officer raped a young black man, the work of anti-racist and leftist groups incorporates solidarity with the ‘new’ migrants and refugees, but to change attitudes and political priorities in this divided nation is uphill work.
The scene at Porte de la Chapelle and elsewhere across the city remains grim for refugees and migrants who are ‘dublinées,’ those who came back down south from Calais, and those without the language or connections to get a first toehold in the city. It’s hard to imagine how the situation will develop. Unlike the big squats in Athens or the old Calais camp, there seems little scope for agency on their parts. And while the main motivations for state inaction may be lack of funding, the end result is a short-sighted, dehumanising project of rendering the already-dispossessed destitute and invisible.