In 1933, a few months after Hitler was democratically elected as Chancellor of Germany, Hannah Arendt, a twenty-seven year old PhD student living in Berlin was arrested by the Gestapo on her way to meeting her mother for lunch.
Upon her release, she fled to Czechoslovakia, followed by Geneva and then settled for France in the capital. For the next few years, she divided her time between helping the growing number of Jewish refugees arriving in Paris and assiduously clipping newspaper articles in her journal which witnessed the growing anti-Semitism around her. By 1940, the Vichy government started deporting Jews who were living on the French territory so Hannah and her mother were forced to flee again, this time to New York via Portugal, thanks to illegal visas.
In 1943, Hannah published her short essay “We Refugees”. In the first paragraph, she writes:
“A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held. Well, it is true we have had to seek refuge; but we committed no acts and most of us never dreamt of having any radical opinion.”
Today, Paris is a modern, affluent and global city. But while it hosts the Euros, other refugees - whom, like Hannah Arendt, came to France because they were fleeing persecution – are sleeping on the streets.
They are from Aghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Soudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen and elsewhere and they have been forced to leave their country because of war, dictatorship, economic misery, rape, climate change and lack of civil freedom. Much like Hannah Arendt wrote:
“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives… and our best friends have been killed and that means the rupture of our private lives.”
So what it is like to be stateless? When T. arrived a few months ago in Northern France, he asked for the directions to the nearest police station. In his best English, he told the policeman at the front desk that he was a computer scientist from Kabul, Aghanistan and that he had left his country because the Talibans were after him. He had come to France to claim asylum as it was no longer safe for him or his family in his own country. The policeman proceeded to lock him up in a local prison cell. M. sat in the cold, dark room and was released a couple hours later without any answer to his query.
A few weeks later, as we eat dinner, he shows me the pictures of his family back at home. When I met him on the street earlier that day, he was refused access to the road where France Terre d’Asile stands – the only asylum office in Paris.
France Terre d’Asile is a distinctive building on the Boulevard de la Villette because there are usually fifty to a hundred migrants sleeping in front of the entrance. France Terre d’Asile can only take a few people in a day because of the lack of political and financial support from the state. The refugees sitting in line in front of the entrance are not considered refugees on the French territory until they register themselves as so; they are simply “illegal.”
“In order to forget more efficiently, we rather avoid any allusion to concentration or internment camps we experienced in nearly all European countries—hell is no longer a religious belief or a fantasy, but something as real as houses and stones and trees. Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.”
One morning, a group of ten Sudanese refugees looking for public showers were stopped, questioned and subsequently arrested by the local police. They were released some four hours later with a paper that signalled their obligation to leave the French territory in thirty days (OQTF). This could made their asylum claim very difficult as they were forced to dispute and build a case to stay in France in less than a month – often with no legal help or language skills.
Because the local police refuse to allow refugees arriving in Paris to sleep anywhere and because the town hall does not provide any facilities, refugees have to sleep on the streets.
Dispersed, refugees are preys to police intimidation, arrests and verbal abuse. Eventually, street camps are formed which allows refugees to make their plight more “visible” to the public. With the newly acquired media attention, there is a certainty that the local politicians will be forced to find them shelters for PR purposes. But the wait can be long, as months on end pass before local authorities take action. Meanwhile, the camps grow day by day, welcoming families and exhausted young boys arriving from Calais. The camps often turn to chaos because of the cold, the lack of hygiene, the boredom and the desperation. Citizens take responsibility for distributing food, sleeping bags, providing information and juridical aid and opening their homes to teenage refugees for the night.
One morning, three refugees sat in their tents in pain. We later found out that they had active tuberculosis, but it was Parisian citizens who spent the afternoon with them in hospital. The news of a possible outbreak of tuberculosis put some pressure on the mayor of Paris and a week and a half later, police trucks arrived at 5 am to proceed with an evacuation of the camp.
Evacuations are a violent process. As police vans and empty coaches come into view, the refugees and their French friends cheer loudly: finally, they are going to be given a home! But the process is not easy. Refugees are pushed onto the coaches without being told where they are going. They could be taken to emergency housing in the North of France, in the middle of the countryside or fifteen minutes away in the same Parisian neighborhood. They are often separated from their friends and family. Most of them will end up in very last minute arrangements: gymnasiums for months on end, housing without food, nor juridicial help, nor french classes.
After boarding the coaches, we get them on the phone. Once, a whole coach was simply abandoned on the road in the middle of the motorway and they were forced to walk back to Paris. Some of those who were put in emergency gymnasiums in June are still stuck over there. Evacuating a camp becomes a way to keep refugees out of the public eye, without accountability.
When a street camp is ‘evacuated’, most of the tents, sleeping bags and other materials bought by citizens are thrown away. Sometimes, the police allow us to quickly retrieve it all. The next step is to wash all of the material and get it ready for the next camp. What politicians smiling to the cameras will not mention is that at each evacuation, fifty to a hundred refugees aren’t allowed to climb on the buses. Instead, they are blocked by the police guarding the perimeter of the camp.
Those who “missed” the evacuation were using the toilet two meters away and not let back in the perimeter. Or they found a more private, silent space to sleep just around the corner and arrived too late. Sometimes, it’s because they were queuing in front of France Terre d’Asile early to make their asylum claims, or because they had an appointment to give their fingerprints some metro stops away. Now they will have to sleep another three weeks or more in the streets while local politicians congratulate themselves on Facebook for putting them all in safety.
Once a camp is completely cleaned out, the police installs fences to make it clear that migrants should not sleep there again. The reason why most of the camps have appeared underneath the metro line over the last year is that it provides shelter from the rain. Now, all the area under Stalingrad metro until la Chapelle station are wired with fences, with hostile dogs guarding the area.
So the life of a refugee – seeking refuge just like Hannah Arendt had - in Paris amounts to this. Police searches and random arrests. The destruction of their possessions (tents, sleeping bags, clothes) but also of their papers. And often, being brought to detention centres or a police station, without a night of rest in sight.