Solidarithe in Paris. Leo Plunkett. All rights reserved.Alberto Biella, a tall and friendly post-doc student from Italy, has just finished overseeing a busy distribution with Solidarithé, a grass roots collective that distributes tea and information to newly arrived refugees in the north of Paris. It’s November and it is cold out, though nowhere near as cold as it will be soon.
“It is not easy for people to find somewhere to sleep. Police have been given instructions to remove people’s tents and blankets and throw them away, and it happens very frequently,” he tells me. “They have an instruction to remove people from this area, which they have to follow.”
Alberto is pointing out how his work has changed since August 18, when the makeshift encampment that had formed around the humanitarian centre at Porte de la Chapelle was cleared. The dispersal was followed by a two-week lockdown on almost all food and drink distributions, and accompanied by a reinforced presence of CRS (riot police). Police have been given instructions to remove people’s tents and blankets and throw them away.
The encampment had been unofficially divided into national communities: Sudanese, Afghans, Eritreans, Chadians, Somalis. Access to toilets and clean water was scarce and the camp was chaotic, foul-smelling and insalubrious — but it was also a place of friendship, laughter and solidarity.
“Before when people were on Boulevard Ney, there was a kind of community. Now the community is missing here,” Alberto tells me.
Alberto Biella, Solidarithé. Photographer, Leo Plunkett.“When you have a community, even when it is on the street you have many advantages: people that distribute food know exactly where to go, people are fed properly.”
“For us, it’s very difficult to provide any information because every night you see different people, everything is faster, you can’t spend any quality time with people: it’s very difficult to help them now.” “It’s very difficult to help them now.”
Two hundred metres to the north, on the intersection of Boulevard Ney and Rue de la Chapelle, sits the white dome of the tented humanitarian camp known as ‘la bulle’ (the bubble). The centre was opened in November 2016 to much fanfare, following the destruction of the jungle at Calais. It was framed by Paris city officials as a new kind of refugee centre, offering short stays with a place for the weary to rest their legs, to get clean clothes and hot showers and to receive medical attention, before being processed and sent on to more permanent accommodation
From the outset, there were more people arriving than the 450-person capacity centre could house and process. This was, in part, due to logistical bottlenecks caused by an insufficient number of CAOs (Centres d'accueil et d'orientation) to send people on to, as well as complications caused by Dublin III: the EU edict that states that an asylum application should be carried out in the country where a migrant is first registered (so many who are fingerprinted in Italy, for example, face possible deportation).
The next day, I meet Anne-Marie Bredin for a quick lunch in a cheap and cheerful brasserie on Rue de la Chapelle, in sight of the camp. The former businesswoman runs Solidarité migrants Wilson, a collective that distributes daily breakfasts to homeless refugees in this area.
Like Alberto, she describes a fractured community of newly arrived migrants, constantly engaged in a game of “cat and mouse” with the police.
“Everyone knows the rules of the game now,” she says: “I’m a migrant. I lie down at 3 to 6 in the morning and then I get up at 6 and I fold my tents and I hide my blankets and I pretend I’m walking down the street.”
Anne-Marie Bredin runs Solidarité migrants Wilson. Leo Plunkett.At the end of July this year, a newly elected Macron announced his intentions to have “no more women and men in the street and in the woods” by the end of 2017, along with plans to speed up the asylum process and to expediently send failed applicants back to their country of origin. Macron: “no more women and men in the street and in the woods”.
“Macron wrote that he wanted to see no one on the street by the end of the year, and he is deploying all he can to make sure that is true”, she told me. “People think the migrants are all gone. They’re not gone! It makes me crazy. They’re here”
She suggests that “what’s really happening is, by hook and by crook, [Macron] is making sure no migrants come to Europe”.
The president in July also briefly mooted the idea of setting up “hotspots” to process migrants in Libya before they get to European soil, though he later rowed back on the idea, which was met with criticism from Human Rights Watch and other NGOs.
Last week, UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein declared the EU policy of helping Libyan authorities intercept people trying to cross the Mediterranean and return them to detention centres in Libya as “inhuman”.
Paris graffiti.Many of the Sudanese migrants I have met at the camp over the past months have shown me injuries they acquired in Libya: bullet wounds, burns, scars. Stephen, a young Kenyan-educated man from Sudan described six months of beatings endured in a detention camp in Libya, which he escaped thanks to an encounter with a Médecins Sans Frontières volunteer. Hamad, who I met at the camp this summer, fled Sudan after his father and two sisters were executed by the government, leaving behind his then-pregnant wife, who he hopes will join him later, with his infant son. He describes being made to do manual labour in exchange for a promised passage to Europe, and instead being driven to an empty warehouse with no light and being left for dead.
Some seek the catharsis of telling their story, some would prefer to speak about anything else. “Most people are a mess [when they arrive]. You get shell-shocked, totally traumatised people who have no brain left or they’ve got really bad psychological problems,” Anne-Marie tells me.
Flight from death
People’s journeys to Paris vary greatly, but some themes recur: unscrupulous smugglers, shoddy boats, hiding in the woods, police violence.
I met Mohammad, a 24 year-old Afghan man with excellent English, in October at a tea distribution. He had accommodation in Limoges, but was back in Paris for the last interview of his asylum application. He told me had studied in London in 2012, working a weekend job at Kebabish in Southall. When he moved back to his village in Afghanistan in 2013, he founded an English school. He was criticised by some villagers for trying to impose ‘Western culture’ and suspected of being a Christian missionary. After a tip-off from a local, Taliban militia targeted him. The then 20-year-old was kidnapped, beaten and left for dead, while his older brother was shot to death in the doorway of his home.
Due to the Dublin procedure, Mohammad, like many others, had to wait 8 months to submit his asylum application in France; he had been fingerprinted in Italy after crossing through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, with the original aim of getting to the UK.
He called me from Limoges last week to tell me his application had been successful. “I am happy now because I have everything. I can see my future so bright. I can do something now,” he said. Mohammad received some practical help from a French family, whom he met by chance. This is not uncommon, it seems: instead of reliable state infrastructure, the asylum process runs on the generosity of volunteers, human kindness and chance encounters, in a process that inevitably favours those with energy, good French, good English and even good looks. “I can do something now”.
Like all French administration, the asylum process is complicated, confusing and paper-heavy. In addition, even the simplest details seem to be changing constantly. Refugees and volunteers alike exist on rumours. “The system is as complicated as it can possibly get: it’s a Kafka situation,” Anne-Marie from Solidarité migrants Wilson tells me.
“Nobody knows what to say anymore. Nobody knows what the best advice is to give someone who’s just arrived. It’s a mess,” she adds.
Indeed many of the actors on the ground are unsure whether to advise new arrivals to try and enter ‘la bulle’ at all. Utopia56, a grassroots charity that ran France’s first (now closed) humanitarian camp in Grand-Synthe, was based inside the centre until last month when they left in protest at what they considered to be unfair procedure. They reported that some men entered believing they were starting the asylum process and ended up being deported or sent back to the border.
“From when the centre opened, we saw a very marked degradation in the conditions of entry. Immigrants had absolutely no information on what was going to happen to them, or how to get in,” coordinator Aurélie Chaput told me. “The prefecture of Paris increasingly became the complete master of what was happening, and it didn’t sit well with us.”
A network of civilians
The charity’s hotchpotch crew of long- and short-term volunteers work around the clock, sorting donations, distributing, food, clothing and blankets and generally helping out in whichever way necessary, whether this be getting an Algerian family with a small baby accommodation for the night or helping an unaccompanied minor with the bureaucratic process of attending school.
The group now focuses on getting help to the most vulnerable in the street, while building a network of civilians ready to house those most in need.
Paris Solidarithé distribution. Leo Plunkett.“The system is completely anarchic now: sometimes there are people admitted by queue, sometimes it’s by appointment. People queue for days and we’re not even able to tell them whether it’s a good idea or not. It’s very frustrating. We don’t give any information on the centre anymore,” Chaput tells me.
Eimtiaz Safi fled his native Afghanistan five years ago. On a cold November night, he beds down for on a dirty woollen blanket by the entrance of ‘la bulle’, trying his luck for admission the next day. “We just want peace,” he sings, half to his neighbours, half to himself.
“I left Afghanistan because I didn’t want to kill for the Taliban”, he tells me. “It was impossible. I could not do that, but European life is very dangerous too: I never thought it would be like this."
Eimtiaz Safi fled his native Afghanistan five years ago. Leo Plunkett.