Can Europe Make It?

After walking 5,500km through hell

The stories from a week in France’s only humanitarian centre for registered refugees show us that their work is needed now more than ever. Français

Piers Purdy
6 April 2017

An advert reads 'The Good Life', overlooking the humanitarian centre in Porte de la Chapelle, in the North of Paris. Photo by Piers Purdy. All rights reserved.

Most of my conversations at the humanitarian centre in Porte de la Chappelle, Paris, started in the same way, with me asking “Where are you from?” In the case of 17 year-old Muhammad, he explained that he was from Afghanistan and that he had walked over 5,500km to get here. Despite us standing in the cold of a December night in Paris, with only a cup of soup to warm us, he was still eager to talk with me in English about his journey: the need to escape the insecurity back home, the racist abuse he received on his travels and how he lost friends along the way.

“Iran is very dangerous”, he told me. One route of the ‘Afghan exodus’ demands walking through desert, over several days and nights with very little food and water, to get to Tehran, the major hub and staging post of smuggling Afghan nationals in the country. “Some of my group died of dehydration in the desert”, he told me, the experience of witnessing his travelling companions’ passing in such a way clearly having made its mark on him. And aside from the perils of fatigue, the Afghan-Iran border is rife with violence. Once described as the scariest little corner of the world, the dangers of people smuggling, ongoing insurgency and trigger-happy border patrol guards do not make this a suitable environment for teenagers. He didn’t seem to want to recount the details.

Arriving in Europe is certainly no entry into the ‘promised land’ either, as extortion, robbery and violence remain familiar threats in many parts. In Bulgaria specifically, a number of visitors to the centre recited worrying tales of abuse – claims that have also reported by the media. Muhammad himself told me that the little money he had managed to keep hold of, after his long journey to Europe, was taken from him by Bulgarian authorities after the transport they were travelling on had been pulled over. Now he had nothing left.

“It’s Paris. You don’t come here for the weather.”

For those refugees I had the pleasure of meeting during my stay, the humanitarian centre in Porte de la Chapelle was still not the end. After arriving at the men-only camp (women, children and families are welcomed at a separate in Ivry, Val de Marne), refugees have time to rest, receive a medical check-up (physical and psychological) and are given information on asylum procedures. They are mainly from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Sudan. But after ten days, they leave the camp and join a ‘reception and orientation centre’ (CAO) in a region of France. The subsequent integration into French society takes over, and this experience is very much dependent on the individual and the region they are relocated to.

The humanitarian centre at Porte de la Chapelle is the only humanitarian camp in France. It differs from the Grand-Synthe camp near Dunkirk – the first camp in France to comply with the UN’s refugee agency standards - as its residents are registered as part of the asylum process in France. It differs from others, such as the widely-reported ‘Jungle’ in Calais, in that it is dry, warm and safe. It is also relatively exclusive, accommodating a maximum of 400 refugees at any one time, due to its logistical capacity.

The humanitarian centre's infrastructure is an abandoned SNCF building, the French railway network, in the North of Paris. Photo by Piers Purdy. All rights reserved.

The centre consists of two separate main buildings: the distinctive 800m² ‘bubble’ where visitors are first received, meet with staff and receive basic care; and a second two-storey concrete block, reminiscent of an abandoned car park. In the latter, an impressive design of eight colour-coded blocks, each with heated cabins to sleep in, sanitary facilities and a sitting area. It is well organised, and a significant improvement on the cold, wet floor of Paris’ pavements.

There is not much by means of entertainment inside the camp. Unsurprisingly, the outdoor gym machines and table tennis tables were about as well used and those that are dotted around your local park and or housing estates. Instead, time is passed through conversation – and the occasional light-hearted bartering with the clothes distribution centre for slimmer jeans, or a more fashionable pair of trainers.

And in the evening, the residents leave and join the crowds gathered at the entrance to the centre, where they lend their company to the long queue of those who have not been so lucky as to receive entry into the centre yet. In winter, the temperatures can drop below zero, it often rains and a line of police vans in the peripheries. It is here, outside the gates, that Utopia 56, the organisation recruiting and mobilising volunteers at the centre, come alive. They distribute blankets, hot drinks and food – as well as keep a sharp eye out for vulnerable minors, always ready to bend over backwards for their well-being.

It was remarkable to see how the warmth of another refugee or volunteer -  as they shared interests, jokes and cigarettes together in the cold of night – can calm the anxieties of a young man, thousands of miles from home, if only for a short while.

Residents at the centre board the daily coach that distributes refugees to 'reception and orientation centres' (CAO) across France. Photo by Piers Purdy. All rights reserved.

What’s the magic ingredient?

When I asked Utopia 56 what made the Porte de la Chapelle project possible, I was told “it is the formidable enthusiasm of citizens.” Of course, the centre has been backed by Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, and co-financed by both the city and the state, as well as falling under the umbrella management of EMMAÜS Solidarité. But it is the determination of the volunteers that has ultimately made it a success.

Unlike some other organisations, Utopia 56 accept ‘short-term’ volunteers.  This allows citizens who usually would not be able to fulfil a long-term commitment to offer their help. The majority of volunteers are therefore students, who come from across France and abroad during their holidays (many of whom were from the UK). There are also those who find gaps in their work schedules, and even retirees, who can volunteer for a few hours throughout the week, be it by distributing clothing, giving French classes or just offering friendly conversation as a distraction when the sun goes down and the cold starts to bite.

Furthermore, the organisation has been encouraged by the number of volunteers who have left the centre, but continued to find ways of helping: by organising donations, French classes and even football tournaments. The experience has that effect on people, and the organisation has thrived because of it. Utopia 56 began in 2016 with thirty volunteers, but through word of mouth and the contagious results of car-sharing, a year after its creation, there are now more than 4,000 members.

That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges. The capacity of the project is on a much smaller scale than is needed, and you don’t have to look far in Paris to find tents clustered beneath bridges, out of sight and reeking of filth and wood smoke. The dismantling of ‘Jungle’ in Calais - and the authority’s subsequent refusal to permit alternative provisions of safe accommodation, meal distribution or even showers – is a reminder of the social tensions we are currently facing throughout Europe that are constraining the efforts of these organisations.


French police, armed and wearing protective armour, escort a march for 'the human rights and fundamental liberties of migrant peoples' on International Migrants Day, Paris. Photo by Piers Purdy. All rights reserved.

The plight of Europe’s refugees may not fill our front pages, but it should nevertheless remain on our minds. Despite far fewer refugees entering Europe in 2016, compared to the peak of 1.3 million in 2015, already this year 20,580 have risked their lives at sea, with 537 feared drowned. And throughout Europe, those attempting to settle are facing rising resentment and abuse, as they are used as targets for the ambitions of far-right, populist political leaders.

The firm anti-immigration positions of both the National Front’s Marie Le Pen and the Republican’s Francois Fillon candidacies have consolidated wide popular support in France. Certainly, any success either of them, or their views, have in the upcoming first round of the presidential elections will cast a resurgent wave of uncertainty over the lives of refugees hoping for a future in the country, and over the work of organisations like Utopia 56. After walking 5,500km through hell, the young men, women and children need organisations like these to put a smile on their faces and a warm blanket over their shoulders. We can also be there to give our support.

You can visit Utopia56's website here.

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