Porte de la Chapelle
by Mick ter Reehorst
It’s 9:00 am. A big group is already lining up to enter the refugee shelter at Porte de la Chapelle on the borders of the 18th arrondissement in Northern Paris. Some of them are carrying huge suitcases. Others have nothing except a dirty coat and shoes with holes. The door only opens at 15:30, but everyone knows that they need to be in front of the queue if they do not want to sleep outside in the cold Parisian night. Every day, around fifty newcomers arrive in Paris. Only twenty are guaranteed a spot in the overcrowded makeshift shelter.
The migrant camp of La Chapelle opened last November in a disused shed to welcome 400 migrants. It is financed by the French state and the City of Paris and run by French charity EMMAUS. The goal of the camp is to welcome newcomers and, more particularly, isolated single men. They are mostly from Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea and Sudan, and are supposed to stay in the camp for a maximum of 2 weeks. Afterwards, they will be directed to another camp or facility. The refugee center is one of the only European camps respecting the, extremely basic, UNHCR norms. Asylum seekers are catered for and have access to electricity, toilets, clean water, and hot showers. They can also have medical appointments. This all takes place inside the camp.
What lies outside is different.
Just a few hundred meters away from the camp, a few colorful tents and sleeping bags can be spotted in the shadow of Parisian bridges. Under the arch of the highway, it is hard to breath properly because of the smog, pollution and dust. The unstoppable traffic of the nearby freeway forms a constant background hum, loud enough to keep the deepest sleeper from a good night’s rest. Artificial light from the freeway shines mercilessly throughout the night. The pavement is full of garbage. In this insalubrious area, stories of scabies are commonplace and you can spot rats running freely. An omnipresent stingy urine odor hangs in the air.
“For me, Paris was the city of perfume fragrances. Now this all has a very different meaning to me”, says Wahid. He came from Pakistan, and the man next to him from neighboring Afghanistan. They have flocked together in a small strip between construction works and some stone blocks underneath the ringway. Two months ago, the City of Paris brought in these stones to prevent the installation of informal camps. Yet, the number of tents increased significantly. The ‘anti-migrant rocks’ were quickly appropriated by the migrants, who used them as protection from the chilly wind. The camps are now divided by nationality. The Afghans and some of the Pakistanis went into this building site, in between the stone blocks. The Sudanese took shelter under the bridge. Most Eastern Africans, like the Somalis and the Eritreans, gathered at the crossroads a little further.
Wais Abdallah (24) came from Afghanistan and just arrived in Paris from London. There, he worked in a restaurant for a couple of years. “I can't believe some migrants have been staying here for months. You go crazy. It really disturbs your mind”, Abdallah said. “Some people go furtive and turn criminal. When you don't have money, you do bad things and that's the start of the problem. You then become a criminal.” He shouts: “But fuck off, they made us a criminal.”
These migrants are condemned to stay in their shanty makeshift town. Without legal documents and metro tickets, they cannot go anywhere without the risk of getting arrested and ultimately deported. Unlike those in the actual shelter, the groups in the camp don't have access to clean water, public toilets, hot shower, full meals or electric plugs. They sometimes go to the mosque after the Friday prayer to try to have a shower. However, their everyday life consists of finding some food to satisfy their hunger.
Working on the other side are several organizations, including the Comité Wilson, a citizen initiative set up by locals in January. The goal of the association is to provide the migrants with breakfast. They use products that the surrounding bakeries could not sell. The volunteers were, however, confronted with resistance from local police officers. They got fined for not parking properly, while they were unpacking the food. They also were disturbed and even turned away because the distribution would create ‘social disorder’. Currently, they distribute the breakfast on a random street corner around the camp every morning.
Another association goes by the name of Utopia 56. The organization tries to help migrants outside the camp by giving them shower gel, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hygiene packages, blankets & second-hand clothes. Utopia has been putting pressure on the City of Paris to install temporary public showers and toilets around the camp to solve the ongoing humanitarian crisis, but the authorities take too much time. Yet, instead of feeling disillusioned, they often go inside the informal camps to clean the area. They have to, since the policemen and street sweepers exclusively take care of the pavement for pedestrians. Corto Barnier (21) volunteers for Utopia. He explains in detail how he feels that the migrants are left behind: “We cannot let them live in the dirt like this. If we don't do it, no one will do it”.
But the lack of proper hygiene and basic facilities are not the only problems that the makeshift camp has to deal with. During food distributions, a few riots had taken place. Some volunteers compared it to food drops in famine-ridden countries, the scenes you would see on TV or read about in the news. Also, as inter-community racism between the Sudanese, the Afghans, the Pashtuns, the Farsis, and the Uzbeks rages high, this obviously provides tensions and sometimes leads to violence. There are on average three fights a week. In April, two homosexual Palestinians were beaten because of their sexuality. “Once, two men were strangled and almost stabbed to death after a fight for access an electricity plug”, Barnier said. “There have been no deaths so far but I am pretty sure it is gonna happen. I try to hug them to calm them down, but I am not sure it will always work”.
The area where the camp was installed is not helpful for the integration of migrants, leading from misery to desperation. La Chapelle is an area that is particularly known for its poverty. A camp in a neighborhood with numerous homeless people, a hard drug problem, prostitution networks, alcohol and criminality might not be the best backdrop in which to throw a migrant camp into the mix. Another mind boggling detail: the camp is situated next to a detoxification center and now, crack and alcohol have become widespread in the migrant community over the past few weeks. There are also stories about young female migrants suddenly disappearing. “They are definitely recruited by procurers”, says Omar Mourad, who owns a bar close the camp.
Naqeeb (25) and Anwak Khan (22), two brothers from Afghanistan, look at it from another point of view. They say that these problems only concern a minority of the migrants. Yet, they have now been sleeping outside for one month ever since they arrived from Afghanistan. “It is very hard to sleep because there is so much artificial lighting and there are always cars horning around”, Naqeeb says. It took them six months to cross Europe. They walked all the way here. They had to cross Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy before eventually passing into France. “The Bulgarian-Turkish border was particularly hard because I was beaten up by a policeman”, Anwak said, showing the scars on his neck.
Despite their miserable situation, the brothers remain hopeful and they talk to us with a smile on their face. Surprisingly, they do not seem to feel any hatred against the Bulgarians nor their new host country. The French are even quite welcoming, they say, because they have given the migrants some food and clothes. However, the brothers’ romantic idea of Paris has changed. Also, they haven't seen anything of the city yet. The ultimate dream, seeing the Eiffel Tower, feels so close and so far away at the same time.
Both brothers speak fluent English and have an academic degree. What they want now is to find a job, to learn French and, most of all, not to sleep outside anymore. “We wanted to make our future. Afghanistan is not safe. There are bombs blasting around all the time”, Naqeeb said.
On the other side of the fence stands Yann Manzi. He is the founder of Utopia 56 and he does not understand the passivity of public authorities. “During music festivals, we can build cities and welcome 40.000 people. But now we are not able to welcome a few thousand people in the streets of Paris as Germany does with more than a million migrants ?”, Manzi says.
Even though the camp does not work perfectly, Manzi believes that it was necessary at this point. He does not blame the City of Paris, but rather points to the European Union and to the French state above all. “It's no one's fault, but at the same time it’s everyone's fault. It's like the Shoah and the Jewish community. They were put in some trains, but it was no one's fault”.
Manzi talks about the the French state, and their inaptitude in dealing with this ongoing crisis. He also says it is just getting started. “The French State wants to divide migrants and make them invisible so that everyone forgets about them”, Manzi said. “Public authorities are not respecting human rights for migrants to deter them from coming in France”.
Manzi strongly believes that no one should be put aside in our society. Gypsies and homeless people should also get a support. “Misery does not have a color or an odor”, he explains.
Back at the entrance of the camp, Mourad Kter, who is from Afghanistan, is staring at the camp from outside through the fences. “I am going to move to Calais to try to travel to the UK”, he says. “I came to France because I thought it was the country of human rights, but I think I was wrong.”
The situation at Porte de la Chapelle was handled by swaths of volunteers from organizations like EMMAUS, Utopia 56 and Wilson. For the last months, these initiatives came from grassroot organizations and citizens’ initiatives. Something they all agree on is the incredible reluctance and lack of full cooperation from the state and the city government. The lack of resources, was and will likely remain a problem. Until the focus of the state shifts back to situations like these, it will be a long time coming before substantial changes are made. Groups will continue to line up at these camps, and for the borders of Europe.
They all want in, but for some it might not be so much better inside.