Desperation stalks Paris migrant camp after Calais clampdown

Camp in city’s northeast quickly filled with 2,000 migrants following raid last month

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As twilight falls over Paris, a desperate scene is unfolding in the city’s 19th arrondissement. A small crowd of migrants and refugees, mainly from Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, surges towards a van as its rear door is slammed shut. “We are hungry,” shouts one. “We must eat.”

This is the Paris “jungle”, a makeshift camp of tents and tarpaulin shelters located around the Stalingrad and Jaurès metro stations, home to an estimated 2,000 migrants. Local charity Dir El Kheir has just distributed 700 meals. “The van was full, but we emptied it in less than 45 minutes,” says a volunteer.

Many will have to wait until tomorrow to eat. For now, they disperse on the strip dividing Avenue de Flandre, congregating around tents, dirty mattresses and clapped-out sofas. Everywhere the talk is of the demolition of the original “jungle” in Calais.

Reception centres

Temesghen Zeray (24) from Asmara in Eritrea, arrived on Tuesday. He left Calais at the weekend, just before the French authorities moved in, bussing 6,000 of the camp’s 7,000 migrants – according to official figures – to reception centres around the country,

“Those buses were only good for underaged,” says Zeray, expressing fears that, as an adult male, he runs a greater risk of deportation.

It took him four days to walk and hitch to Paris. “I thought it would be better to wait here, then go back to Calais later,” he says. He is now waiting to hear from friends before making another attempt to cross the Channel to Britain.

“I left Eritrea because of the conflict, the dictatorship. I wanted a safe life. France is no good. Language is too difficult. There’s no food, no place to shower, no clothes,” he says, waving his hand at the dismal conditions in the camp.

His is not an isolated case. Most of the migrants The Irish Times spoke to have come from the south, mainly from Italy. But they are now being joined by a steady flow of arrivals from Calais, who fell through the net of this week’s government operation.

Most of the camp’s residents have been here less than a month. In mid-September, the regional police removed 2,083 people from the camp, taking them to accommodation centres. But, within two days, tents were springing up again, says Mario Oliveira, director of Adventist charity Adra, which distributes lunches to migrants.

With 50 to 60 migrants and refugees arriving in the city each day, according to Paris city hall, it didn’t take long for the area to fill with tents again. The opening of a refugee centre in nearby Porte de la Chapelle by city authorities, expected in the coming weeks, will relieve the problem. But, with only 400 places available at the centre, Oliveira expects more spillover on to the streets.

In any case, Adra is in it for the long haul, planning to invest in a food truck, so volunteers can heat food for migrants over the cold winter months. There have been several evacuations this year, all to no avail. “This problem is not going to go away any time soon,” Oliveira says.

Plummeting temperatures

For many of the migrants here, crowded in flimsy tents, sleeping on unfolded cardboard boxes in plummeting night-time temperatures, the UK remains their ultimate goal. But, as winter approaches, some are considering giving up and trying for a place at the new centre.

“Having a place to sleep is now their first priority even if that is not the reason they came here,” says a young Sudanese man, who goes by the nickname of Darfur. He would like to approach the authorities, but the Dublin Regulation, the European Union law under which migrants are sent back to the countries where they were first registered and fingerprinted for asylum applications to be processed, is a major disincentive. He does not want to return to Italy, where he claims he was treated badly by police.

“I can’t decide whether to stay here or go to Calais. We know nothing here. There is just confusion,” Darfur says.

Over by Jaurès station, where Afghan refugees sleep beneath a flyover, a celebration is under way. A man belts out a tune with a battered guitar, while others bang on the bins and dance wildly. There’s no particular reason for the party, says one. “It’s because it’s not raining.”

According to one group of men, there was a police raid here the previous week, in which tents were destroyed. Left without shelter that night, many had to sleep in the rain in front of Ofpra, the government agency that handles asylum requests, which is just across the road from Jaurès.

The Paris police say they have no records of the raid. But a local support group, Le Comité de soutien des Migrants de La Chapelle (The migrants’ support committee of La Chapelle), has documented the incident, which took place on October 20th, on its Facebook page. Local volunteer Jalé Gokcen arrived on the scene while police were still there.

Online network

Gokcen is part of an online network of locals that puts out calls on Facebook for donations. “We needed to find new tents and jackets for them,” she says. “It’s getting tiring replacing things after the raids.” Interest comes in spurts, but sometimes it wanes and tents are harder to find, she says.

Rahman Safi (28) from a village in Afghanistan’s Kapisa province, has been here 12 days. He says he fled from the Taliban a year ago after receiving death threats, almost drowning in a dinghy on the way to Greece and strapping himself under a truck to reach Italy. Having reached here without leaving any fingerprints anywhere else in Europe, he is now applying for asylum in France.

Keen to obtain asylum as soon as possible, he travelled outside Paris to the small town of Limay, where he heard applications were being processed more quickly. Now he has to report to the Versailles prefecture, which is on the outskirts of the city, next month. He is currently trying to raise money for train and metro tickets.

According to Ofpra, 31.5 per cent of asylum applications were successful in 2015, an increase on the previous year, but still well below the European average of 52 per cent. In the wake of the French government’s large-scale operation in Calais, migrants have a sense that doors are closing fast.

As Safi waits to hear about his application, the EU and Afghanistan are moving ahead with a deal that would see hundreds of thousands of Afghans deported back to the war zone. He hopes it’s not too late to squeeze through.

“Maybe I arrived in time,” he says. “This is my last chance.”

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