‘Chaos at the gates of Paris’: Inside the sprawling migrant camps nobody talks about

'Chaos at the gates of Paris': Inside the sprawling migrant camps nobody talks about
Migrants huddle around a fire in one of the squalid camps on the outskirts of Paris. Photo: Rory Mulholland
The squalid migrant camps that shocked tourists and vexed locals around the trendy Canal Saint-Martin area of Paris have long gone, but homeless refugees have not. They have been pushed out of sight, to the edge of the city in what is possibly the most sordid spot in all of France, writes Rory Mulholland.

About a hundred metres from “Crack Hill,” a patch of wasteland where dishevelled drug-addicts congregate to buy a fix and where many live rough, a sea of tents stretches out underneath a motorway flyover.

There a few hundred migrants from war-torn or impoverished countries live in appalling conditions, waiting for their next appointment with the migration authorities, who after an initial meeting send them away to fend for themselves for months on end.

There is no hard evidence that authorities tolerate this camp near Porte de la Chapelle metro station in the 18th arrondissement because it is largely out of sight, but if officials wanted to hide a settlement like this then there could hardly be a better place.

It lies beneath an intersection of the périphérique, the eternally clogged Paris inner ring road, and a series of multi-lane highways leading to the suburbs, and is invisible to most people zooming past overhead.

The 'tent city' huddles under Paris' busy inner ring road, largely invisible to the many thousands of drivers who pass each day. Photo: Rory Mulholland

Abbas, from Afghanistan, sits with some friends, including one young man from Senegal, around a couple of burning planks on the footpath next to the tent city, trying to keep warm on this chilly March morning.

“It’s awful here, people are fighting all the time, over the food when there’s not enough, and then the drug people cause trouble sometimes,” said the 22-year-old who said he has been living under the noisy flyover for the past two months.

The future looks bleak for Abbas, who spent four years in Austria, where he was refused asylum, before he came to France. He has little chance of being allowed to settle legally here if he has already been turned down in another EU country, and faces deportation or having to live without residency or work papers.

Around him other young men – this settlement is almost exclusively male – are starting to emerge from their tents, waiting for the spring sunshine to make its way under the grey flyover.

The authorities have erected a few plastic urinals near the settlement, but there are no showers or any other facilities. Food is provided by charities as has been the case at makeshift Paris migrant camps in the past.

Beyond the main cluster of mostly green and blue tents, more micro-settlements have been built on banks on the sides of nearby roads or tucked under bridges or in the middle of roundabouts.

Some of the migrants work the traffic lights, begging money from people in cars.

“Famille syrienne” – Syrian family – says the piece of cardboard one woman in a headscarf brandishes at peoples’ windscreens.

The migrant camp is next to Paris' notorious 'crack hill' drug dens. Photo: Rory Mulholland

Ruthless crack dealers sometimes target young migrants, giving them free drugs to get them hooked and then adding them to their paying customer list. At the nearby tram stop – away from the squalor of the roadside addicts and migrant camps – a Médecins Sans Frontières tent provides medical consultation to a group of Middle Eastern women.

A few metres away, as the Salvation Army was packing up after distributing several hundred breakfasts to eager customers, an English woman called Clare Roberts held an open air French class, handing out photocopies of the French alphabet to African migrants and pointing to letters on the whiteboard attached to a tree.

“I’m a supply teacher in primary schools in England so I take a week every so often and come over here,” said the Oxford resident, adding that she used to do the same in the giant “Jungle” camp in Calais, which until it was shut down in 2016 was home to up to 10,000 migrants, most of whom were hoping to sneak into the United Kingdom.

Porte d’Aubervilliers is the next “porte”, or city gateway, along from Porte de la Chapelle, and it too is home to many migrants. Some camps there have recently been cleared but one large one, home to about 200 people, many of them women and children, still remains.

Compared to the squalor of the Porte de la Chapelle camps, this one could almost be considered upmarket.

The tents are huddled together on a wide and smooth footpath, surrounded by office and apartment blocks in an area that is undergoing rapid urban renewal, and there are no crack fiends lurking in the background.

But their residents are no less angry at being left on the street like this.

Tahir, a young Ethiopian, lives there with his wife and their one-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.

He said he has already been granted asylum in France and ended up here because he can’t find a job. But he had a job interview in a hotel that morning, so he was optimistic.


An Ethiopian father at the Porte d'Aubervilliers camp. Photo: Rory Mulholland

Another family at Porte d’Aubervilliers are the Jafaris from Afghanistan. The two parents, their teenage sons and their 12-year-old daughter Fatemeh live in two tents, with all their worldly goods piled in beside them.

They said they had lived in a tent in Paris for a short time before the authorities provided them with accommodation in a hotel in the suburb of Poissy. But after three months there they were told they had to leave the hotel and were given no help to find new lodgings.

And now they were back on the street.

“I want to go to school,” said Fatemeh, in good English, showing her school bag full of French books. “I went to the secondary school in Poissy but now I can’t because it’s so far away and I can’t go on my own.”

Critics say that cases like the Jafaris are a perfect illustration of the migrant problem in Paris.

When migrant camps get too big or attract too much media attention, the authorities, backed by riot police, send in buses to take their residents to temporary accommodation in requisitioned gyms or in hotels.

But this is merely a stop-gap solution, and many migrants soon end up back on the street.

The wider problem is that under the French system of applying for asylum or legal status, migrants are, after an initial interview, told that they will be summoned by an SMS message to come back for another appointment to decide on their status.

But that appointment often comes months and sometimes more than a year later, and in the meantime many migrants have to fend for themselves, which for some means ending up in a tent.

This was the case of most of the migrants The Local spoke to on Thursday, who were waiting for that all-important SMS to arrive and perhaps bring with it the chance of a roof over their heads.

Critics say that it is deliberate policy on the part of the French state to make life difficult for migrants in order to discourage others from arriving. They point to Germany, which absorbed more than a million migrants in 2015-16, with few if any ending up living on the streets or in wretched camps like those in France.

If that is indeed a secret part of French policy, it is not working, with more than a 100 migrants arriving every day in Paris, according to city hall figures.

Overall in France, the number of asylum applications in 2018 compared to the previous year rose by 22 percent to more than 120,000, and 33,000 applications were granted last year.

The state spends millions on housing thousands of migrants every year, but many fall through the cracks and are forced to live rough.



Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris, puts the blame for homeless migrants squarely on the government.

She paid a visit to the camps at Porte de la Chapelle and Porte d’Aubervilliers on Tuesday and said she was shocked at the “migration crisis in the northeast of Paris” where people were “forced to live in inhumane conditions.”

“I do not understand why the state lets indignity and chaos prosper at the gates of the capital of France,” she said, vowing to return to the camps every week until the situation was resolved.

That was little consolation to 30-year-old shop worker Nabi, another Afghan, whose current home is a tent at Porte d’Aubervilliers where he lives with his 28-year-old wife, a biology student.

He said he had asked Hidalgo for one minute of her time on Tuesday when she came by but the mayor refused, saying she was in a hurry..

“The French talk of human rights, women’s rights, but we can’t find any of this in the heart of France. I really didn’t expect to be living in the street in this rich city,” said Nabi.


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