World Refugee Week always provides an opportunity to reflect on and highlight the diverse challenges facing displaced peoples.
In this piece, Tatiana Thieme (UCL-Geography) draws on her field insights working with civil society organisations, refugees and asylum seekers living in the city of Paris. A version of this piece appeared on the Refugee Hosts website on June 21st 2018.
The everyday (and every-night) challenges faced by marginalised refugees and asylum seekers – stemming from the limits of municipal authorities to meet needs, and the restrictions placed on migrants by hostile immigration policies – leads to long-term precarity for many. However, against this backdrop comes evidence of what we refer to as ‘DIY humanitarianism’, where refugees, asylum seekers and humanitarian organisations with limited resources engage in everyday acts of solidarity and support. Nevertheless, I ask whether this DIY Humanitarianism can be sustainable in light of increasing urban austerity and the absence of any meaningful rights to the city. This reflection considers the realities, dynamics and challenges that characterise cities hosting refugees across Europe, many of which also resonate with the experiences and responses being documented across cities and urban camps in the Middle East.
Refugees in Europe may pass through registration offices, and spend months – if not years – in refugee camps (including the infamous Calais ‘Jungle‘), or be caught interminably in detention centres. While asylum claims are either approved or denied, the places and spaces of humanitarian provision where everyday refugee politics are dramatized are not necessarily within enclosed camps and centres, but rather within the city itself.
In the Global South, informal economies and informal settlements have been integral to 21st century urbanism, where cities offer concentrations of opportunity while the rate and form of urbanization outpaces public sector supply and municipal capacities. In the Global North, makeshift urbanism tends to disturb European bourgeois sensibilities, and yet, as Julien Damon argues in Un Monde de Bidonvilles, European cities are facing a return of slum urbanism as the numbers of people on the streets without services are forced to improvise and “make do”.
With this process in play, Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the right to the city conceptualized 50 years ago takes on new meaning and raises urgent questions regarding urban capacities to provide essential services for all city dwellers, including the temporary or ‘just visiting’.
As refugees set up makeshift settlements or precarious dwellings in various corners of the city, under bridges and in parks, the interstices of urban spaces are being remade and claimed by those waiting or unable to access housing and associated forms of urban provisioning including water and sanitation, let alone opportunities to work and inhabit the city in ‘livable’ ways.
In Paris, recent media portrayals have tended to focus on the closure of the Centre de Premier Acceuil (what was known as “the bubble”) at Porte de la Chapelle, the hotly contested new immigration legislation, and the regular evacuations of makeshift dwellings across the city since 2015. As the thousands of people currently sleeping rough on the streets of Paris raise critical questions about the city’s capacity to accommodate new arrivals and those caught in asylum limbo, myriad civil society associations have mobilized to address the lack of infrastructure and basic services available to street dwellers. These stories have received less attention, and yet they reveal that service provision to refugees arise from countless neighbourhood-based collectives and under-funded humanitarian organisations that roam the streets to reach the most vulnerable refugees, and setting up ad hoc distribution stations to provide food, clothing, blankets and tents for those sleeping rough. In addition to basic sustenance, other services include legal aid, language lessons, and street-based medical council. Together, this has created a fragmented but vibrant off-grid Do It Yourself (DIY) [or Système D] humanitarian sector in the absence of more comprehensive state/municipal provisioning.
It is worth noting that against the backdrop of protracted austerity politics in Europe, an increasing number of economically vulnerable people across Europe face housing shortages, labour insecurity and cut-backs in support services and welfare programmes of all sorts. So, while focus shifts to those seeking refuge, efforts to find public sanitation facilities, showers and shelter, let alone ways of making a living, become increasingly difficult for a growing number of people living in precarious conditions. And so, the streets have become the point of convergence where a range of vulnerable groups co-exist, and where DIY humanitarians themselves may often be under-employed or struggling to pay their next bills in a city that has become increasingly difficult to afford for the many.
In the 18th arrondissement, Porte de la Chapelle has continued to serve as a hub for various forms of DIY humanitarian assistance. Refugees gather under Boulevard Ney alongside other homeless precariats for daily breakfast distributions provided by the grassroots organisation Migrants Solidarité Wilson, and access to mobile medical care from Médecins du Monde. Walk across this neighbourhood at 2 am and refugees huddle in ad hoc dwellings alongside other precarious night economies occupying their own corners of the sidewalks until dawn. The atmosphere can teeter quickly from moments of solidarity and shared provisioning to turf battles amongst both those living on the street and those purporting to offer care. And, alongside these overlapping installations of solidarity, precarity, and hustle, a series of off-grid basic infrastructures (e.g. solar showers and portable toilets) are continuously set up and disassembled, blankets and plastic cups distributed and left as remains of makeshift dwellings that are systematically demolished by police… (over 35 evictions of makeshift camps) have taken place in Paris since 2015)
This moment in Paris and other EU cities puts in sharp relief the confluence of refugee crises, austerity politics and rising overlapping precarities amongst diverse vulnerable groups. European cities are still unsure about how to collectively acknowledge and coordinate the constellation of actors who work at different scales to ensure emergency and long-term provision alike. Instead, polarizing debates and finger-pointing persist, raising key questions about the respective roles of the municipality, the federal government, and the EU. Increasingly punitive asylum and migration laws (in Europe and elsewhere, think of the US at the moment…!), alarming rates of detention and politics of deportation as Afghanistan and Syria increasingly become regarded by EU member states as having ‘safe zone’… these all animate divisive debate and dramatized media portrayals, but in the mean time it is worth mentioning that under 20% of those considered ‘deportable’ in France (2017) have actually been sent away. It is also worth mentioning that ‘politics of return’ are complicated by the ‘Dublin Regime’ which assumes those denied asylum claims should go back to their first point of entry in Europe (rather than their home state). In practice, the politics of expulsion are difficult to administer, and what ends up happening is that 1000s of ‘clandestine’migrants (including Afghans who speak excellent German who were in Germany and are no longer welcome to stay… but come to Paris because they face violence and shame if they go back to Afghanistan…) are living under bridges and persist in trying to make place (if not home) in cities like Paris.
As we debate the Spider-Man heroics of Mamoudou Gassama required for refugees to ‘deserve’ their papers and their skills recognized, this is also a time to look around and recognise the quotidian labour and acts of courage that go into the day of a refugee on the streets of Paris and other European cities. It is also a time to better acknowledge how refugees’ needs are actually being met in Europe’s cities, recognizing the myriad actors doing their best, often on shoe-string budgets, to address provisioning within their own capacities. And yet, we have to ask to what extent this form of DIY humanitarianism is sustainable, or whether it risks becoming palliative in the face of increasingly stringent immigration policies, and the city’s incapacity to provide basic services for refugees in waiting. From where will refugees navigating the streets and countless volunteers working on their behalf draw reserves of energy, commitment and labour in the face of continued evactuations? This is also a stark reminder that the everyday micro-politics of accessing basic services in the city as a resident of the street is embedded in the wider structures of urban austerity and uncertainty that make accessing urban infrastructures difficult for precarious urban residents of all types – refugees, those without a fixed domicile, and the working poor.
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