A group of associations and NGOs have set up a camp for young migrants in the heart of Paris to highlight the plight of homeless asylum-seekers in France. While they wait for their paperwork to be handled, they do not benefit from any care, causing many to literally live in the streets. Charlotte Oberti reports
A stone’s throw from the Place de la République in Paris, a hundred tents have been covering Jules-Ferry Square since June 29. Inside, some 65 migrants, who claim to be 16 or 17 years old, have deposited their belongings. “The atmosphere is calm. Some go to Belleville Park to get food through the food distribution teams organised there, others play petanque, [a sport in the boules or bowls family]” said Julie Lavayssière, a member of the Utopia 56 organisation which campaigns for migrant rights.
The new camp is part of a publicity campaign organised by Utopia 56, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Timmy, the Midis du Mie and the Committee for the Health of Exiled People (Comede), bringing together young people who have been declared adults by the French government, which the young migrants dispute.
They have all started the appeal procedure to be recognised as minors, giving them access to care by the Child Welfare Office, a tedious process that can last from six months to a year and a half. Outside of the camp, according to MSF, there are “about 300” youth in similar circumstances in temporary accommodation or on the streets in the greater Paris area.
“These young people find themselves in a legal vacuum and have no access to any kind of care. Only the NGOs take care of them, otherwise they would be sleeping on the streets during their appeal,” said Lavayssière, denouncing “a denial of rights” for these people and a situation that only the NGOs handle.
In the absence of solutions from local governments during the process, these “unaccompanied foreign minors” often find themselves in the care of MSF, which puts them up in hotels, or Utopia 56, which has various accommodation solutions that can be made available to them on a case-by-case basis. But these second-best solutions are not enough for the 300 or so migrants who find themselves in this situation in Île-de-France, according to MSF figures. In addition, organisations no longer have the means to pay for hotels, Lavayssière warned.
‘At the portes of Paris, the problem could have been dealt with more easily.’
Utopia 56 wants to show the reality of these young migrants, mostly from West Africa, right in the faces of the public authorities.
Take the case of André, who says he’s 17. “I arrived in Paris seven months ago, after passing through Libya and crossing the Mediterranean in a Zodiac for three days as far as Lampedusa,” he told AFP. “I’d like to go to school to learn a trade,” said the teenager, who had previously been hosted in a Paris hotel by an aid organisation.
The new encampment makes it hard not to see André and the others. “The aim is to make them visible,” said Laveyssière, who noted that this is the first action of its kind in the heart of Paris. “Thanks to this location, we hope to increase the pressure on the authorities. If we had organised this at the portes (gates) of Paris, it would simply have been considered another camp, and the problem could have been dealt with more easily.”
This is not the first time that Utopia 56 has organised this kind of action: at the end of May, a camp made up mostly of single women and families was set up on the edge of the Bassin de la Villette, in the north-east of Paris, before being dismantled the following day. A similar “punch” or high-impact operation was carried out in July 2019 at the Porte d’Aubervilliers, in the 19th arrondissement of Paris.
The same treatment for minors as for asylum seekers
Concretely, Utopia 56 is calling for “the creation of a system with real, adapted and systematic care for young people, i.e. accommodation in suitable places (and not in gymnasiums), educational and social and medical follow-up, until a young person is recognised as a minor or has exhausted all legal avenues,” said Laveyssière: “After all, this is what is done for asylum-seekers, so why not for minors? It’s very paradoxical.”
In April, lawyers, NGOs and associations had already sent a report to the public prosecutor in Paris, alerting him to the situation of these minors “left to their own devices” and exposed to “serious danger” due to the lack of accommodation during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Even without the coronavirus circumstances, the dangers nevertheless remain real: many youngsters slip through the organisations’ nets and find themselves alone and forced to sleep rough, according to Laveyssière.
According to MSF figures, 57.7% of migrants awaiting appeal who were tracked in 2018 at the Pantin centre in the north of Paris were recognised as minors, giving them access to care by the Child Welfare Office.