Over the course of the past few years, migrant camps have been springing up in and around Paris, some with the authorisation of the mayor’s office.
Annie Hidalgo, the current mayor and a Socialist — as was her predecessor Bertrand Delanoë — has more planned.
The latest is said to be planned for an area in the 10th arrondissement between the Gare du Nord and the boulevard de la Chapelle (see bottom right hand centre of this map).
I last took the Eurostar in early 2002. The sidewalks outside the Gare du Nord were not a comfortable place to be then with panhandlers all over the place. I can only imagine how the situation has deteriorated since then and, even worse, what it will be like later this year once the new camp opens up.
At the end of June 2016, the City of Paris sent out a press release stating that the ‘humanitarian centre’ would be opening in that area. The mayor’s office refuses to state exactly where it will be, in case the project is ‘put in peril’ as a result. The decision as to location, they say, has been taken with the consent of local humanitarian associations.
Last year, in the neighbouring 19th arrondissement to the northeast, left-wing extremists and migrants squatted in Lycée Jean-Quarré (a high school), which was closed for refurbishment. The City had hoped to complete the work over the summer. Instead, vandalism and violence broke out among the squatters. I have read about it in French media and seen the pictures. The damage was so bad that it was becoming unsafe for the trespassers. In late September, the school was finally evacuated and closed.
One of the local councillors Aurélie Solans (EELV — Green), gave an interview to Metronews at that time in which she explained (translation mine):
Every day there was tension about food. The over-population of the place made the situation harmful. Right now, the atmosphere is dangerous for everyone. From Saturday night into Sunday, there were 160 cases of food poisoning.
Food donations kept the squatters going, but Solans said that most of the foodstuffs required cooking, and there were not enough facilities for that.
That situation and others elsewhere in Paris have contributed to councillors’ pleas for properly constructed centres in town. Everyone envisages only one or two.
Yet, in the 18th arrondissement immediately to the east of Lycée Jean-Quarré, residents are worried over their personal safety and health because of three camps there.
On June 30, 2016, the Nouvel Obs featured a story on one of the illegal camps which is in la Halle Pajol in the Esplanade Nathalie Sarraute, a residential area catering to hipster tourists. Incredibly, a migrant camp has popped up two summers running (see right hand centre of the map near Marx Dormoy station). It was cleared out once again at the end of last month, but not for long.
Nouvel Obs spoke with local residents to get their assessment. Everyone was apprehensive. Ibrahim, father of a six year old, said:
We’d heard there was tuberculosis in the area, making it impossible to walk past there. No one there asked anything of us, but it wasn’t a place they could stay long term.
Several hundred migrants — mostly Eritreans, Sudanese and Afghanis — were evacuated by convoys of buses which required police patrols throughout.
Ibrahim told the reporter:
It wasn’t this big last year, just some mattresses at the end of the street. This time, it really was a camp.
The article said that the residents are known for their tolerance (Socialist and Communist councillors), but even they were getting fed up.
Christel, a woman in her 50s, said:
It must have been 11 o’clock at night; we could hear noise. It was awful. They were beating each other up, pulling off branches from trees to beat each other with. There was a little 12-year-old in that camp. He was afraid. He was crying. It broke my heart.
She agreed with Ibrahim’s assessment:
Last year, the neighbourhood gave clothing, food. The associations seemed to manage it better. This year, we felt more aggression towards us, which isn’t normal. We can’t have that every summer.
Rita closed her Cuban restaurant in the area when the camp reappeared this year. She wants the government to reimburse her for a loss of €500 per day.
The mayor of the 19th arrondissement — a Communist, incidentally — said he is ‘powerless’ to act and despite the ‘anger’ he shares, it’s not his department. That’s the city’s problem.
The mayor’s office, the article says, gave the same ‘spiel’ — someone else’s problem. They did, however, acknowledge that complaints had risen sharply on the previous year and added:
Even people sympathetic to the plight of the migrants are finding that violence and squalor are occurring more rapidly.
Unfortunately for residents living near Halle Pujol, within days after the migrants were evacuated, they began returning little by little. Post-evacuation, they had been sent elsewhere in the city or suburbs. One charity worker said that one of the organised camps resembled a ‘prison’ and that a number of migrants were determined to find their way back to places such as Halle Pujol where they could live independently in tents.
Dominique Bordin, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, explained that some migrants are afraid and confused by being sent from one authorised reception centre to another:
It’s difficult to explain the situation when, on a single bus, there are three or four different destinations. It looks to them like injustice.
The article went on to explain that migrants feel they have nothing to lose by taking chances with their housing situation. If a reception centre is full, they might get to stay in a gymnasium.
The unsuccessful evacuation of the Halle Pujol camp was the 25th in Paris. Government ministers are working with local officials to create another 3,000 places in centres for migrants by the end of September.
The obvious question is, will that be enough? Those close to the situation describe it as an ‘endless cycle’ of unauthorised camps followed by evacuation. Because there are not enough places in the government’s reception centres, activists from associations and charities dealing with migrants encourage the pop-up camps.
This lack of communication and co-ordination with local officials produces a lack of safety and security in normally quiet neighbourhoods.
It is no wonder that residents get upset. They want to help but feel increasingly compromised, especially if they detect aggression. What about their quality of life?
There is no quick solution. There is, however, a lot of buck passing and obfuscation. The situation in Paris is likely to get worse.
It is hard to think of a worse place than an organised camp near the Gare du Nord, especially as it is relatively close to Halle Pujol and two other unauthorised settlements nearby. It’s bad for residents as well as tourists.