File photo of the camp at Porte d'Aubervilliers | Photo: RFI
File photo of the camp at Porte d'Aubervilliers | Photo: RFI

Aid organizations are concerned that migrants living in informal camps in France are the great forgotten ones in the country's measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The French government imposed a nationwide 15-day lockdown on Tuesday.

"I want to ask for sacrifices to slow down the epidemic. The aid to the most fragile (...) should not be jeopardized. ... For the most vulnerable, the most destitute, for the isolated, we will make sure they can be fed and protected." Those were the words of French President Emmanuel Macron in his speech to the nation on Monday, March 16th. He called on people to confine themselves to prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic. 

Migrant aid associations are worried that these measures will not take into account migrants without shelter. In an open letter sent on Monday to the prefects of Pas-de-Calais and Nord as well as the mayors of Grande-Synthe and Calais, 24 NGOs -- including the Auberge des Migrants and Médecins du Monde -- called for the accommodation of migrants living in camps in the north of France.

'Nothing is planned for people on the street'

"We asked the state to provide shelter and set up a mobile clinic near the camps, but nothing has been done," Antoine Nehr of Calais-based Utopia 56 told InfoMigrants. "We continue to go around and check because nothing has been planned for people living on the streets," said Louis Barda of Médecins du Monde (MdM) in Paris.

In Calais, NGOs estimate that about 800 migrants sleep on the streets. About 500 others are on the outskirts of Paris, mainly in Aubervilliers. "Gatherings of more than 100 people are forbidden, but there are many more (people) in the migrant camps and a lot of them share a single tent," Barda said.

Hygiene measures in the informal settlements also raise questions. "The authorities in the camps in Calais have distributed flyers about which hygiene measures to adopt," Nehr said. "But there are no water points anywhere, not even soap." The situation in Parisian camps is comparable. 

'A health scandal'

"This is a health scandal. We are witnessing serious violations of fundamental rights. It's not new, but it's even more visible today," Barda said.

As an immediate consequence of the coronavirus, the number of patrols was reduced and many day centers had to close their doors. This is the case, for example, for Utopia 56 and MdM in Paris, but also for Secours Catholique in Calais. Utopia 56's system of sheltering families in private homes can no longer continue either.

The risk is that migrants will become increasingly isolated, says Auberge des Migrants. The organization la Vie Active, which distributes meals to migrants in Calais, has closed its space for recharging telephones. "If a migrant is ill, how is he going to contact 15 [emergency services] if he has run out of battery?" asks François Guennoc, vice president of Auberge des Migrants.

So far, authorities have not given concrete answers about how they will provide for persons in need. 

The Ile-de-France prefecture told InfoMigrants that special structures are going to be set up for sick homeless people. 

The Paris police prefecture told InfoMigrants that "at the moment, we are handling emergencies", implicitly stating that migrants are not their priority. The Pas-de-Calais prefecture was no more forthcoming: "For the moment, we have no information to respond to these questions."

The mayor of Paris, on the other hand, on March 17 announced the opening of a gymnasium to house people living on the streets. Paris mayor Anne Hidaldo also asked the government to open 14 additional gyms in the coming days.


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