The Biggest Challenges for French Civil Society Organizations and Volunteers
At the beginning of 2015, refugees were not on the minds of many civil society organizations and volunteers, until the phenomenon of informal camps under bridges appeared in Paris – mushrooming in size until evacuations by local authorities. The world, Europe and France did not anticipate such a wave of mass migration from Asia and Africa and this unexpected plight has exceeded the expectations of migration experts and policymakers; this has also put huge pressure on humanitarian organizations and volunteers. Perhaps, this time Europe has got caught up at a historic juncture which it has not prepared for: what was truly sickening to any conscience and heart alike was the unpleasant reality of everyday life for migrants and their risky journeys on wooden boats.
As 2015 reached the halfway mark, the phenomenon of informal camps under bridges steadily increased in various places in the city of Paris. The vast majority of these migrants are young people in their late teens to late twenties – mainly men from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and Iraq. Although the media and political focus was outside of Europe, in places like Syria and the crisis of refugees there, here in France, civil society organizations and volunteers began to notice warily what was coming; more specifically, the numbers of migrants significantly increased and the information from newcomers who reached France from Italy after journeying across the Mediterranean Sea was that “Europe should expect more wooden boats”.
Despite the constant increase in newcomer numbers which concerned some Parisian residents, there was a remarkable and considerable solidarity from local volunteers and charities who provided hot meals, tents and French language classes. This daily routine continued until the opening of a temporary camp in Porte de La Chapelle with a capacity of four hundred and fifty beds, by the Mayor of Paris in November 2016. After, the greatest challenge for charities, civil society organizations and volunteers was to find practical solutions to the problems which faced these young dreamers; there appeared to be a huge lack of understanding from most of the associations and volunteers on how the asylum procedures work France.
We noticed the challenges from a wider perspective, beyond our daily experiences with the migrants, and the first question that came to our minds was what should we do? With some volunteers, mostly from my country Sudan, we founded an association called ‘Espoir, d’ici et d’ailleurs’ (or ‘Hope here and there’). Despite our limited resources, we were able to complete a small guide on the asylum process in France written in simple Arabic, complete with the necessary addresses of local administrative bureaus. Over the course of three years, we have made hundreds of field visits to housing units, temporary makeshift camps and other places of migrant residence. We also accompanied migrants to health centres and have worked with other legal associations to explain the Dublin asylum procedures.
The opening of the temporary camp, which was eventually closed at the end of March 2018 after a year and a half of operation, was one of the noblest ideas, narrowing the gaps of mistrust between charities and asylum seekers. Despite its limited capacity it has greatly contained the phenomenon of informal camps under bridges and elsewhere in the capital. I and other volunteers have joined Emmaus Solidarité, an NGO operating within the temporary camp since its opening. Some of the immediate challenges were the continued violence between Afghan and Sudanese migrants; as time went by, more volunteers and professionals joined to manage the situation and most of the violence decreased.
Roughly 23,000 individuals have come through the camp in a period of eighteen months, and over ninety percent are young men, predominantly from Sudan and Afghanistan. Many are angry young men who are often impatient, volatile, and at times lacking in hope and disillusioned by unrealistic dreams. While they complain about their journeys, they still happily share with us their aspirations and what has driven them to leave their countries. We see that their lively dreams are similar to ours, and only differ in the scales of time and space – this is what separates the old dreamers from the newly arrived.
The temporary centre in Porte de La Chapelle has been closed even while the phenomenon of camps under the bridges is ongoing; despite its small size, the centre was very constructive and important for those newcomers. Europeans, including France, Britain and Germany, must try new means to handle asylum and immigration by training, strengthening capacity, financing civil society organizations, and recruiting volunteers and charities. If the asylum and immigration issue is neutralized outside the political equation, this may rapidly help to strengthen the integration process.
Gaffar Sineen works for a national NGO, Emmaüs Solidarité, and is deputy and co-founder of a refugee solidarity association called ‘Espoir d’ici et d’ailleurs’. He is originally from Sudan and has been living in Paris for the past seven years.