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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*Names have been changed.