In the northern neighbourhoods of Paris, migrants who sleep rough by night and queue for a place at the overwhelmed refugee centre by day have had to face yet another danger in their perilous quest for safety – from the French police. Officers have been taking away their bedding, using tear gas on people in the queue at the slightest provocation and preventing weary migrants from sitting on the ground, according to three humanitarian aid associations.
The allegations emerged barely a week into the New Year and as the campaign for the 2017 presidential election began to get into gear. Both the newly-appointed interior minister, Bruno Le Roux, and housing minister Emmanuelle Cosse have declined to address the allegations.
The first alert came from a neighbourhood group in the 18th and 19th arrondissements of Paris, the P'tits Dej' à Flandre Collective, which put out a press release on January 6th describing how police had intervened on Rue Pajol in the north of central Paris on December 31st and January 2nd. “In this street there are several dozen exiles who sleep regularly in the area, unable to find any alternative. The order was given to all of them to leave their blankets and duvets on the ground. Employees of Propreté de Paris [editor's note: local authority cleaning agents] picked up all the things after the police intervention and put dozens of sleeping bags, blankets and duvets into skips. In a few minutes, around 60 people found themselves with nothing even though temperatures fall inexorably at nightfall,” the organisation said.
The next day Médecins Sans Frontières, which had set up a medical aid truck at Porte de La Chapelle, near the refugee reception centre opened by Paris City Hall, confirmed and denounced these incidents. “These unacceptable practices put the lives of migrants in danger: Médecins Sans Frontières' teams had to treat eight people close to hypothermia,” it said in a statement.
Then on Thursday January 12th a third group, Médecins du Monde, criticised the behaviour of the police in Paris, saying that since the end of December it has witnessed “intolerable and repeated police violence” against migrants on the streets of the capital. “We've observed the confiscation of meagre personal effects, forced removal of mattresses, rugs and blankets as well as repeated dispersions,” the humanitarian organisation said in a statement.
Interior minister Le Roux, appearing on a regular political interview broadcast on LCI television and RTL radio on January 8th, gave no explanation of the police action and simply counter-attacked. “We must stop this national sport of accusing the police,” he said in answer to questions. “What police forces are doing now is protecting people who are vulnerable.” He also used the word “humanity”, adding: “It is true, sometimes there can be a form of constraint in protecting someone.” This expression justifying the use of force for a person’s own good is often employed by officialdom when discussing dealing with migrants.
Speaking in Parliament on Thursday January 12th, the prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who was Le Roux's predecessor as interior minister, brushed aside criticism of police actions. “Our sole mission is to ensure the protection of people who have been persecuted in their country of origin,” he declared.
Meanwhile in Calais, infamous for the Jungle migrant camp that was dismantled last October, local association Salam says refugees are reporting that their shoes and money were being taken and the screens of their mobile phones damaged. Its chairman, Jean-Claude Lenoir, has written to local and departmental authorities and to the ministry to denounce both such practices and the regular police controls the migrants are subjected to. The association says it encounters 40 to 50 migrants a day during its rounds.
Mediapart asked Corinne Torre, who coordinates MSF's migrants' programme, to give detail and context for these cases of police violence.
Mediapart: Why did you decide on this mission in Paris and what did you find?
Corinne Torre: When [the camp in] Calais was dismantled, MSF wondered what the impact of that operation would be on migrants in Paris. Exploration for this new mission began on November 28th, 2016. We met most of the groups working on this question and we realised that the situation in front of the initial reception centre in Paris was particularly dramatic.
After a few days of operation, this establishment with 400 places was completely full, so much so that numerous migrants were still on the street. To have a chance of getting in they queue part of the night. At the moment there are about 150 of them there from four in the morning.
Our medical truck began its work on December 26th. We located it near the centre on purpose so that people on the street could reach it easily. Our team, which also does rounds, includes a doctor, a nurse, a logistics expert and several interpreters in Arabic, Pashto and Farsi.
With the fall in temperatures the situation is becoming extremely worrying. Some people are waiting ten days before being admitted. In less than two weeks of consultations, we have treated eight people close to hypothermia. Needs in terms of mental health are vast. These migrants feel they are being mistreated on their migration route, that this will never stop and that they have nowhere to go.
Mediapart: Your press release dated January 7th describes police violence, saying that migrants' blankets are being confiscated. Could you give more detail about the circumstances of such behaviour?
C.T.: At first we were alerted by several collectives. On December 31st one of them contacted us for MSF to donate bedding. Its volunteers had just seen police officers taking sleeping bags from migrants next to Halle Pajol in the 18th arrondissement. We had received other reports of the same kind, from support volunteers and migrants themselves, near the centre at Porte de La Chapelle.
Then, on January 3rd, we observed the incidents ourselves. We were packing up when we saw police officers forcing around 40 migrants who were sitting on the ground to get up, and they confiscated their bedding. We did not have time to intervene, everything happened very quickly and the refugees cooperated and dispersed. The message is clear: since the last camp was evacuated, the aim is to prevent any tents being set up again.
We also took a statement from an Eritrean who refused the covers we offered him, saying that in any case, the police would take them away from him. He said one of them justified this by claiming they were there to “clean up”. In the middle of winter this police violence is inhumane. It puts these people's lives in danger.
Mediapart: Have these incidents ceased and did you alert the relevant authorities?
C.T.: Since the collectives and we ourselves alerted public opinion it seems this has stopped. We had a meeting with representatives from Paris City Hall who said they did not support the actions by the Paris police prefecture. They told us they had already had one occasion when they distanced themselves this summer, when police operations against migrants and people helping them increased.
We expect explanations from the police hierarchy. Were instructions given or were these incidents carried out by isolated police officers? What surprises us is the multitude of witness statements at different places, even though [the members of] police teams change rapidly.
Mediapart: You also say that in the queue for the refugee centre the police are using tear gas and preventing migrants from sitting on the ground.
C.T.: Yes indeed, at the slightest pushing and shoving the response from law enforcement officers is identical: the police officers there resort to tear gas. We had to treat a person whose leg was caught in one of the security barriers put in place for the queue. As soon as migrants sit down to rest, police officers ask them to get up. Every time it is the same logic: prevent people from moving in, make them invisible, so as to show that the reception centre is working.
Mediapart: But in fact that is not the case, the centre is overflowing…
C.T.: Our aim is not to deny the usefulness of this centre. On the contrary, we believe that such a place is indispensable. But there is a malfunctioning that we cannot stay silent about. Its reception capacity is undersized – 400 places is not enough given that between 70 and 80 new people arrive each day. The problem is political. City Hall needs to convince the government to make more beds available.
Mediapart: What kind of interaction do you have with Emmaüs Solidarité, the association mandated by the government to manage the centre?
C.T.: We have difficulty communicating. Its employees perceive any criticism as undermining their way of working. We regret this because we are there to help improve things, not to prevent them from working.
Mediapart: Do you plan to take legal action over the situation?
C.T.: Our area of intervention is medical. But some collectives are in the process of preparing summonses for causing danger to life.
- The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Sue Landau.