On September 19th, 2017, Agence France Presse (AFP) came along to film the food distribution taking place around Porte de la Chapelle. One of the founders of Migrant Solidarité Wilson, a civil society collective that has taken on daily breakfast distributions since the opening of the Bubble in November 2016, seemed excited by the presence of the press. As she put it, “we don’t want people to notice what we’re doing so they congratulate us for doing it; we want them to notice what we do so they see the migrants are still here, and we need to do something. This situation is not ok.”
The crew of dedicated MSW volunteers have witnessed several evictions around Porte de la Chapelle since last spring, notably on May 9th, July 7th and August 17th. Some say that these evictions were done in an effort to move rough sleeping migrants into temporary but more dignified accommodations. But there are two key challenges with this proposition:
Firstly, the time it takes for a refugee’s registered claim for asylum to be processed (let alone their status secured); it can take months, so it is probable that in the period of ‘waiting’ many asylum seekers are sleeping on the streets anyway.
Secondly, many migrants don’t necessarily want to leave Paris, as precarious as life on the streets may be. In my conversations with some of the young migrants who have been navigating conflict, insecurity and uncertainty for most of their young lives, sleeping on the streets of Paris can be less isolating and easier to cope with than being sent away far from the small but crucial support network they’ve been able to build up in the city.
In this sense, even going into the Bubble at Porte de la Chapelle has become something of a trap for those who do not realise that the ‘Centre de Premier Acceuil’ is inadvertently becoming a transportation hub redistributing asylum seekers to other parts of France or outside Paris. This is why, in part, Utopia56, another grassroots organization active in Porte de La Chapelle, decided to move its office out of the Humanitarian Centre at the end of October 2017.
More recently, President Macron’s new government combines a rhetoric of compassion towards migrants alluding to the importance of treating them with ‘dignity’, with an expressed intolerance for rough sleeping on the streets. So in the absence of immediate shelter and accommodation for all, there are still hundreds of migrants sleeping on the streets of Paris today. They may seem more invisible since they are no longer allowed to settle and assemble into makeshift settlements, but they’re still there, occupying smaller and more fragmented corners of the city where no one is looking (or wants to look). But having these precarious lives be more scattered across Porte de la Chapelle and elsewhere in the city makes it more difficult to find them and deliver blankets or food, let alone legal counsel. As one MSW volunteer remarked on this chilly, drizzly September morning, “and now the cold is coming back, so it’s not going to be pretty.”
As for the state’s recent declaration that ‘no one should be on the streets’, this has a double meaning. It is an outrage if you consider that vulnerable asylum seekers are more than ever difficult to help if they are scattered around the city, but if they are rendered more invisible, this gives less fodder for anti-immigration rants to erupt. So there is a delicate balance to be played by the Mairie. Will Anne Hidalgo manage to convince the government to invest in more humanitarian care as the winter arrives?
But it’s not just about giving blankets and food. The day after this morning breakfast, I interviewed someone at City Hall who has worked with Mayer Hidalgo for the past 6 months. The supportive stance this person had towards the work of Utopia 56 and Migrant Solidarité Wilson was remarkable, and during our meeting, the following questions were raised:
To what extent has the civic engagement by everyday Parisians (not all French!) towards refugees in Paris over the past 2 years been a critical complement to the ‘Bubble’ at Porte de la Chapelle? Has this fragmented and sometimes uncoordinated but crucial constellation of civil society groups effectively proved to the state that the government needs to play a greater role in state-led provision of care? Or has the state and perhaps even the Mairie’s retreat from street humanitarianism enabled and empowered (and relied on) an army of militant volunteers and activists to start a revolutionary civic economy of care that actually works?
Since this field reflection was written, the Bubble closed down in March 2018, and Utopia 56 moved its head-quarters away from Porte de la Chapelle. But the modest offices of MSW remain, and the sidewalk space outside the ‘little green door’ at 56 Boulevard Ney continues to serve hundreds of people every morning. This piece is written by Tatiana Thieme, lead investigator on the ‘Temporary Migrants or New European Citizens?: Geographies of Integration and Response between ‘Camps’ and the City’ grant, co-editor of this zine, and Lecturer of Geography at the University College of London (UCL).