The Guardian | Friday 7 July 2017
Afghans, Eritreans and others living on streets near new aid centre in Porte de la Chapelle bussed to temporary shelters
French police move refugees on Friday. Many of those sleeping rough said they had queued each day for access to the aid centre, only to find it was full. Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
By Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
Police have moved more than 2,000 refugees and migrants off the streets of Paris, where they had been sleeping rough for weeks in squalid and insanitary conditions.
Riot officers watched the refugees as they were bussed to temporary shelters in school gymnasiums on Friday morning.
Hundreds of refugees and migrants had arrived in the Porte de la Chapelle area of northern Paris, sleeping under road bridges and on the side of the road with almost no access to water, sanitation and food, outside Paris’s new aid centre for asylum seekers that was opened in November.
The operation to move them began at dawn and took place calmly. Groups of men and women from countries including Afghanistan and Eritrea – some only with small rucksacks or plastic bags of belongings – were sent on to buses and driven out of Paris.
It was the 34th police removal of large numbers of refugees and migrants sleeping rough in the French capital since 2015.
Aid workers warned that France needed to establish an efficient long-term strategy for processing and housing asylum seekers in decent conditions rather than constantly taking emergency action at the last minute.
Many of those sleeping rough had queued each day for access to the aid centre only to find it was full. Hundreds had bedded down on the pavement outside the gates, alongside traffic-choked roads. In recent weeks, more than 1,000 people had been sleeping here, with aid associations saying 200 more arrived each week.
The numbers of refugees and migrants sleeping rough in Paris has grown after the closure last October of the Calais migrant camp – a vast makeshift shanty town near the Channel coast where thousands had lived in squalid conditions, hoping to get into Britain by stowing away on board motor vehicles entering the Channel tunnel.
On Friday, French authorities organised buses to take people to temporary locations in the Paris region, mainly school gymnasiums that had become available during the holiday season.
A 25-year-old former veterinary student who described fleeing violence in Somalia, said he had been sleeping on the street in Paris for one week, with little water or food and no blankets to lie on. He had come to Paris from Calais after several weeks in squalid conditions there. “I’m exhausted from living on the street,” he told the Guardian. “I’m not sure where they are taking us today. I just want to be somewhere fit for humans. I’m so tired and hungry, but you just have to be patient.”
A 22-year-old Afghan man said: “It has been two months sleeping under a motorway bridge with little water, not much food, some fights between different groups here. You never really sleep. I would queue every day but there was no hope getting into the aid centre here.” He said he hoped for somewhere to sleep indoors and the possibility to begin an asylum application in France. “We’re humans, we’re not animals.”
Guillaume Schers, who runs the emergency programme for Terre d’Asile, a French NGO working with asylum seekers, said: “The number of people arriving in France is not likely to drop this summer.” He said there had to be a permanent, stable and strategic plan for taking care of asylum seekers in France rather than the current “multi-layered and complex” system focused on crisis management.
Corinne Torre, the head of French operations for the doctors’ charity Médecins Sans Frontières, said poor hygiene and sanitary conditions for the people who had been sleeping rough in Paris had worsened existing skin infections. But she said cases of scabies had been contained to 7% to 8% of the refugees and migrants, adding that it was not an epidemic, contrary to a rumour spreading among local residents.
Torre warned that the major issue was refugees’ and migrants’ mental health after trauma. “Most of these people have come through Libya. Many have faced violence, torture, inhumane treatment, traffickers or sexual violence. We don’t talk enough about that, and there should be better structures in place to deal with it.”
Some local politicians in Paris have warned against a continuing cycle of removals and the return of rough sleepers, with a lack of long-term strategy on asylum. The last such police operation in Porte de la Chapelle was only two months ago, when 1,610 migrants were moved.
In Calais between 600 and 700 refugees and migrants sleep rough in precarious conditions after the migrant camp was dismantled last autumn. The French human rights ombudsman recently warned of dire conditions for migrants in Calais.
Charities and NGOs trying to distribute food and water in Calais complained that the police and local authorities were preventing them from providing basic aid to refugees and migrants, and took court action last month.
A court ruled against the creation of a new aid centre in Calais but stipulated that the refugees and migrants must be given access to water, showers and toilets, which the local authorities have refused to provide. The judge said: “It is not possible to leave these people, who are in a state of complete destitution, without any aid.” The state has appealed against the court ruling that stipulated it must provide basic water and sanitation.
The new centrist French president, Emmanuel Macron, told both houses of parliament gathered in Versailles this week that he wanted to overhaul the French asylum system, which has been criticised as too slow, inefficient and lacking in protections. Macron said he wanted “a more human, and fairer” treatment of asylum requests by refugees. An announcement is expected in the coming weeks on what form changes to the French asylum system would take.
Maya Konforti, a volunteer with the Auberge des Migrants, which works with refugees and migrants, warned of harsh police treatment of those in Calais. She said: “Macron says he wants to put more humanity into the system and speed up the asylum process, that is good. But the ministry of the interior is still doing the dirty work.”