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Beneath the buzzing bars of the 13th arrondissement, another migrant camp is awaiting its hour

Translated Sunday 26 July 2015, by Adrian Jordan

Forced from their camp at La Chapelle on 2 June, this Thursday dozens of migrants remain without a solution to their housing crisis. On the other side of the Seine, on the Quai d’Austerlitz, 200 to 300 others also wait their fate - some of them for months - with just the support of some associations and a few politicians.

If he chose to stand in front of the large windows which adorn his comfortable office at the ministry of economy in Bercy (Paris 12th), Emmanuel Macron could undoubtedly see the little blue and green speckles of colour on the other side of the Seine. He might have to concentrate, perhaps even squint because they barely rise above the concrete foundations of the fashionable city in this trendy new part of the capital which opened three years ago. These little specks are tents in which 200 to 300 migrants have found refuge, some for months, others weeks. Little specks which, each day, slightly darken the previously tarnished image of a government already caught red-handed, blindly repressing migrants in front of Pajol Hall, close to La Chapelle Metro, when it sent the CRS (riot squad) in against them and their many supporters last Monday.

“Please consider, I love life, the same as you”

While several dozen people, once refugees in the communal wasteland in Bois-Dormoy (18th), remain with no concrete resolution to their housing needs, on the other side of the Seine, on the Quai d’Austerlitz, another camp, not currently en vogue in the media, waits – or rather frets – until attention turns to them. “Here”, outlines Marc Naelten from the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme of the 13th arrondissement, one of the associations present alongside the Réseau Éducation Sans Frontiers (RESF), Secours Catholique and Cimade, “we are in a similar situation to La Chapelle before the eviction, even if the sanitary conditions are not as bad [1]. We organise ourselves so as to be able to come to people’s aid, we try to gain their confidence little by little. It is not always simple. We also try to respond to their urgent needs. Later, during a second visit, we will address their administrative situation.”

Mainly originating from Sudan but also Eritrea, Chad, Ivory Coast and Tunisia, many of these young men, ranging between 18 and 30 years of age, could claim asylum in France. Some have submitted their applications, some have not. Still others have been rejected and await their appeal. “The situations are very diverse”, confirmed Marc Naelten, “Many should be housed in CADA - reception centres for asylum seekers. However, without places, they are here.” This is the case for Ahmed, twenty-year-old Chadian, his cap planted on his head. “I have been in France since 2013 but I have never been housed in CADA. I was rejected and have waited five months for my appeal. I hope for liberty here, while in my country there is war. But the result is that I have neither liberty nor food.” In fact the 25,410 places the state allows for asylum seekers throughout the territory only meet the needs of 36 percent. Result: the migrants amass here, just beneath a trendy nightclub, where the sound of freely flowing mojitos can be heard late into the night. “On Wednesday we counted 130 tents in total, including those under the Charles-de-Gaulle and Austerlitz bridges”, explained Marc Naelten.

Currently ignored by the big TV news companies, the camp is not being ignored by the authorities. A complaint will have been made by the Autonomous Port of Paris, to whom the site belongs. There is a small but daily police presence. This afternoon, two officers monitoring the camp were making their little tour of inspection. They count, open a tent or two, note the comings and goings of the association workers. Engaging the conversation of the migrants does not appear to be an intention – but to be fair, many of the migrants are strictly Arab speakers. “You know, we follow orders”, justified one of them.

Towards 18:15, the little French language course organised by Anne Lafran, history teacher and RESF activist, begins. “Comment-allez vous ? Je vais bien merci. D’où venez-vous ? Je viens du Soudan. A group of ten migrants conscientiously repeat the phrases thrown at them by their teacher for the day. Others remain withdrawn – suspicious or cynical. Six foot three Hafez, 32, is one of them. A deceptive smile on his lips, anger in his gut, he left his family in Darfur 15 years ago. He has been in Europe for seven months, he agreed to speak “on one condition: you consider that I am like you, that I love life like you.” A condition happily acquiesced to. The French lessons? “I am not against them. But there are so many things more important to us: food, washing, shelter...”

Although tents and blankets were brought to them in winter by the associations, food seems to reach here in a less regular fashion. Wednesday evening it was distributed by the politicians and supporters of the Communist Party (PCF). “We collected the surplus from Bois-Dormoy where there have been numerous donations”, explained Emmanuelle Becker, PCF councillor in Paris 13th. She is concerned about the length of time it is taking for the town hall to enact Tuesday’s announcements made by Anne Hidalgo (PS Mayor of Paris). “It has been months since a reception centre for migrants was called for. Today there is urgency. Well, solutions exist: the state possesses numerous empty buildings in the capital – an old tax office, an unused social security office, an old barracks – which can be used. Use them to house migrants rather than cede them to private developers.

Three years old… and detained!

Arriving last Saturday, Fanta, a little three-year-old Ivorian, was held in the waiting area at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport until Wednesday (!) before being freed. Yesterday, RESF condemned this action. It seems the police required the time to verify that the man accompanying her was really her father. Equipped with a false passport, he explained that had to leave the Ivory Coast urgently, without the time to follow legal channels, to avoid his daughter being circumcised. The same misadventure occurred the previous Saturday, when a little six-year-old French girl was held in the waiting area until the following Tuesday. Police considered the child, returning from Cameroon where she lives, did not look like the picture in her French passport... It took four days for her to be freed!

[1Around fifty cases of scabies were reported in the camp in the 18th arrondissement.

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