Photo Essay | No place for refugees in Paris

Images of the French police assaulting refugees earlier evicted from the Saint-Denis camp as they protested in Paris prompted public outrage and a call for an investigation into police violence.

An action by displaced refugees for decent shelter that resulted in violent clashes between the French police and protesters over the eviction of a temporary protest camp has sparked calls for an investigation and prompted French officials to open additional shelters.

In November, hundreds of displaced people occupied the Place de la République, a major square in the capital city of Paris, a week after police officers used tear gas to forcibly remove them from a massive makeshift camp under a highway bridge in Saint-Denis, a city just north of Paris.

More than 2 000 refugees were living there with a few toilets, no showers and public taps their only source of clean water.

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The French police surrounded the Saint Denis camp just before 5am on 17 November. After hours of waiting, hundreds of refugees, mostly men from Afghanistan, could not board the buses sent to take them to shelters owing to a shortage of available spaces in the shelters. 

The police chased them away using tear gas and they found themselves in the streets with no tents and no bedding, with no place to go.

14 November 2020: Afghan baker Ali*, 29, cooks bolani, a traditional stuffed flatbread from his country, at the entrance of the Saint Denis refugee camp. He cooks around 100 to 150 a day and sells them. He was staying with friends, but with the spread of Covid-19 it became impossible and he moved into the camp two months ago. ‘For people here it’s so difficult,’ he says. ‘At least I am working, so for me it’s better. The hardest thing is the fighting that we see in the camp, and the noise. I just want to have papers, really. I want to start my life. I am a professional and I have worked for five years as a baker and pizza maker. But I have no chance. Without papers, it’s impossible to work and to find housing. So what should I do? In Afghanistan, it’s difficult. Everywhere, people are at risk. People are found dead. There are bombings in the cities, in the schools. It’s not safe there. Every day hundreds of people are dying.’ Ali was sent to a shelter days after this interview and following the evacuation of the camp. ‘It’s good, but I know that probably in two weeks, they will send me back to the streets. But what can I do? I have no choice,’ he says.

‘Brutal’ evacuation

Refugees and human rights organisations declared the evacuation of the Saint Denis camp as “brutal”. The area was sealed off and their tents and some of their belongings left behind were thrown into garbage trucks.

Non-profit organisation ATD Quart Monde said the evacuation was “a violation of rights and dignity“, and that the administration treats people in an “inhumane way”. 

On the evening of 23 November, when the refugees had erected tents at the Place de la République in protest against the lack of a housing solution, the violent evictions sparked calls for intervention. Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister known for his strong support of the police force, admitted that the images were shocking and asked for an investigation to be opened.

17 November 2020: A large number of police officers started evacuating and dismantling the Saint Denis refugee camp at 5am. Firefighters had to intervene when some of the fires refugees had lit to keep warm spread to the tents. Some of the refugees had only arrived the night before the evacuation, hoping to find shelter. The evacuation took several hours, ending at 1pm. Chaos ensued as the police confiscated tents and tried to manage the crowd. They used tear gas and some refugees fainted while waiting to board the buses that were supposed to take them to shelters, and had to be taken instead to hospital. In the end, hundreds of refugees did not board the buses as there wasn’t enough space available in the shelters for all of them.

The main demands of the protest were the urgent opening of 1 000 places of shelter for refugees, an end to police violence and a change in the asylum and refugee policy.

Utopia 56, one of the organisers of the Place de la République protest, wrote on social media: “Words fail us to describe the abomination of the orders given by the prefecture and their implementation by the police through charges, the use of batons; throwing de-encirclement grenades and flash-ball fire.”

Most of the participants in the protest have either applied for asylum or have recently arrived in France but been unable to get an appointment at l’Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration (OFII), the administrative body in charge of registering and processing asylum seekers’ applications. 

It takes weeks, if not months, to reach the OFII for an appointment. 

17 November 2020: Refugees wait for the evacuation of the Saint Denis camp to begin. While the police, journalists, volunteers and supporting organisations arrived before 5am, refugees only started boarding the buses after 8am.

Aggravated situation

The lack of sufficient shelters and housing result in makeshift camps in the northern areas of Paris and adjacent cities. The situation worsened this year owing to the health crisis related to Covid-19, with administrative responses slower than usual or non-existent. 

During the first lockdown, it was impossible for asylum seekers to get an appointment at the OFII, while many of the organisations that provide legal advice, food or a place to rest during the day were closed to the public. With the lack of access to housing and showers, refugees on the streets were also more at risk of contracting Covid-19.

Following the protest, the French government announced that there were 240 places available in shelters. Facing the threat of new protests, this number was raised to 500, according to Maël de Marcellus, a coordinator from Utopia 56 for the Paris area. 

“This is still insufficient as we estimate still more than 400 people are in the streets. They said they had no places available, but when there is pressure, suddenly they can find 500 places. It is really a matter of political will,” said De Marcellus. 

17 November 2020: Laila*, 4, from an Aghan family, is carried above the crowd before boarding the bus.
19 November 2020: Aubervilliers police chase refugees from under a bridge in northeastern Paris two nights after the Saint Denis camp evacuation. Hundreds of refugees were made homeless after their tents were confiscated. A police officer said they had orders not to let the refugees sleep anywhere near the canal where a refugee camp was established earlier this year and evacuated during the European summer.
23 November 2020: Refugees and supporters stand together, facing the police and resisting the dismantling of the protest camp. Supporters who joined the refugees included members of organisations and collectives working with refugees, lawyers, members of Parliament and citizens. Refugees and supporters took to the streets of Paris after the police dismantled the Place de la République camp in an attempt to reach the Paris City Hall, but officers blocked their path and chased them away. The police assaulted at least one journalist.

*Names have been changed.

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