Here I am, at Porte de la Chapelle, in Northern Paris, between two tramway railways, two cities and almost two different worlds that intersect in 2018.
On my left, a gigantic tent surrounded by fences, guarded by a few CRS officers who look patiently at the queue, where women and men have vacant gazes though they hope to find a place to stay, at least for tonight. The Bubble. Its name alone is enough to understand this enclosed place will not welcome everyone.
On my right, hundreds of people, mostly young men, are gathered around a table to have a cup of coffee and sweet toast. In front of them stand a group of young and mostly white volunteers, organizing the food distribution and making numerous calls to 115, the social emergency public housing services. The night is going to be long…
Just ahead, cars come and go to drop off bags of secondhand clothes, food and hygiene kits. Many of these deliveries are made by residents from the neighborhood who ‘want to help’. Smiles are exchanged and different foreign languages are spoken, providing a breather and some humanity amidst the endless hours of inactivity and waiting for the thousands of people living on the streets. Everyone has their own history, their own pains, and their own future. Some of them talk about it, others don’t. The trend is anonymity. As the hours and shifts go by, volunteers take over for each other, and the message is passed along: more and more people are coming and fewer places are available.
As volunteers, we almost forget the rest of our life as the adrenaline takes over – a kind of feeling of powerlessness in the face of such complex psycho-social situations that are beyond human comprehension. And within the mixture of frenzy and waiting comes out the politics of it all. A law. Asylum and immigration. Once those two words are put together, it becomes polemical. The media presents the situation as an obvious set of circumstances, with no other choices possible. We are told that Europe faces a migration crisis, flooded with the people smuggler network, massively infiltrated in Greece, Italy, and Spain. 73,000 people this year? Hungary barricades itself, Slovenia toughens up the message against a backdrop of xenophobia, Austria keeps promising inhospitality and today Italy rushes into the rejection of the other.
So what could be done? Our government truly doesn’t seem to appreciate the urgency of public service needs on the ground, but speaks of dreams of European harmonisation. More immigration detention centres and legal evictions procedures, uncontrolled arrests, only one language to be defended, webcams for the audiences, minors go to prison, legal proceedings are in a hurry, and here we are, volunteers, becoming labeled as new criminals for assisting people in danger. And yet, grassroots mobilization increases. All on strike: the overqualified-underpaid interns, recently unemployed subsidized workers, and those on social welfare who will soon be forced to volunteer in exchange for their benefits.
And a final thought. Who aren’t we talking about when we refer to the ‘migrants’? The 26 million of domestic workers in Europe, for example. They come from the Philippines, Senegal, Brazil, and elsewhere. Confiscated passports, no trade unions, no free time, living in precarious nine square meter living quarters, hoping for a decent Skype connection so they can chat with their children still living overseas. Is economic migration only legitimate when it benefits the State ?
Charly Guerin is the Women Rights Campaign Coordinator at ActionAid France, and a research collaborator on the British Academy funded project ‘Temporary Migrants or New European Citizens?: Geographies of Integration and Response between ‘Camps’ and the City’ (along with the editors of this zine). He was previously the campaign coordinator against slum evictions in France with Medecins du Monde.