PARIS ― Images of burning wooden structures and migrants frantically running in what used to be the “Jungle,” a sprawling refugee camp in the northern French city of Calais, are a distant news headline memory. But the struggle for migrants and refugees in France has not abated. Many still live in misery. They’ve just been relocated and their plight has been kept under wraps in the past few months.
Paris, or more specifically an area called Porte de la Chapelle in the northeastern fringes of the city, has become the new epicenter of the refugee crisis in France since the “Jungle” was dismantled last October. It’s the place where people now go when they have nowhere else to turn. It’s also where the remaining volunteer groups have begun concentrating their efforts.
One street corner in particular operates as base camp. The site is next to the Centre Humanitaire Paris-Nord, a domed yellow and white structure, resembling a circus tent, which the city of Paris built to temporarily take male refugees and migrants in for a few days (another camp for women and children was built elsewhere in Paris). They work to relocate them to longer-term Centres d’Accueil et d’Orientation, or CAOs, across the country. Yet the center’s maximum capacity is only 400.
The contrast could not be more stark. “The line,” the term volunteers use for the outdoor area that people are squatting in, is about about two feet wide. Refugees and migrants had set up sleeping bags and blankets in a single file line, where they to try and gain access into the center.
The number of migrants and refugees living outdoors in Paris has crept up to several hundred, said Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, a charity created to offer support to those in the “Jungle.” This includes people who have already been granted asylum but have not managed to find housing.
And the numbers continue to swell.
“It’s between 50 and 100 people a day arriving new,” said Heather Young, a British woman who has been volunteering in the area for the past five months. “That’s from Calais, that’s from the CAOs, that’s from [other centers], that’s from Germany, Holland, Italy. The last few weeks it’s been predominantly Germany and Holland.”
Their survival lies pretty much entirely with volunteer and aid groups that send people onsite to deliver what little food, warm items and medical supplies they can muster.
The distribution happens at night, Moseley said. She and some of her Care4Calais volunteers drove to a Chinese warehouse vendor in the suburb of Saint-Denis to pick up a bulk order of gloves.
“We’ve struggled to find cheap gloves,” she said. “Here they’re 50 cents a pair.”
While the men stood around, biding their time as the sun went down, the relative calmness belied a latent aggression that has developed, Young said. Afghan men squatted on one side of the road and Sudanese on the other.
A fight had broken out the in the middle of the night as soon as the police left the scene the previous day, Young said.
“We were on the ground until five o’clock this morning trying to separate fights everywhere, there were shanks, knives, even pieces of wood,” Young said. “There was no police. It was literally the six of us dealing with a riot.”
City officials contested the total number of people sleeping rough and defended their efforts to responsibly manage the situation.
“There were 143 people sleeping outdoors under a bridge last Thursday and they were all waiting for appointments inside of the center,” said Ismail Mansouri, spokesman for the city of Paris. “National and city authorities took care of all of these people, sending them towards CAOs or emergency migrant shelters in the area.”
As soon as officials noticed the number of daily arrivals was rising, they increased the number of daily appointments inside the center, he said. They also attempted to create a system to schedule these appointments ahead of time for those stuck outdoors.
The city has approached the challenge of finding a place for so many people “with modesty and humility,” he added. “It’s not a miracle solution, but our aim is to make it an alternative to living on the street.”
Paris isn’t the only place that refugees and migrants have congregated in search of a warm meal and a sleeping bag as they wait out their next move. Clusters of people have begun appearing in Calais all over again, Moseley said. “And we’re the only ones here,” she added.
French authorities said they had dismantled the “Jungle” because conditions had become too dreadful and people’s ongoing attempts to smuggle themselves into the United Kingdom were too dangerous.
As a result, there’s no longer any infrastructure to house them and police have cracked down on any squatting activity. Some people hide in the woods and wait for the sun to set, when the last few volunteers still on site bring them food, and sometimes blankets, Moseley said.
“Twice in the last week, police have just gone in and taken all their tents, all their sleeping bags, just slashed all their possessions,” she added.
Unaccompanied children pose the most heightened risk, Moseley pointed out, due to the cancellation of the “Dubs amendment,” a U.K. government scheme to resettle 3,000 of these children. In the end, the U.K. only took in 350 children, meaning the rest are still roaming around France.
“When the French government closed the ‘Jungle,’ many children were simply told, ‘You get on a bus and you get the chance to go to England,’” Moseley said. “They don’t trust the system, they don’t believe in it anymore, so they just started running away from French centers toward Calais or Paris. But in Calais there’s nowhere for them anymore.”