France's near two-month lockdown forced many of the country's aid groups and social workers to reduce, adapt and - in some cases - even halt their activities. We take a look at what has changed in the Paris region, and how many aid groups have adjusted their operations to fit a new, post-lockdown climate.
After 55 days in COVID-19 quarantine, migrant aid groups in France now have to adapt to a new post-lockdown reality. Their main challenges are to remain present and accessible to an audience that has become even more vulnerable due to the pandemic, all the while respecting strict new guidelines on social distancing.
"Social work is mainly carried out face-to-face, so the lifting of the lockdown is allowing people to finally come out of isolation, and the services that suffered during that time will suffer a bit less," Pierre Henry, director of aid group Terre d'Asile, explains. The group's SPADA service, which helps migrants register their asylum applications, gradually reopened on May 11, and is mainly available by appointment (see list here).
"We're in a transition period until June 2 at least", Pierre Henry highlights further. "'The world after lockdown,' which the media keeps talking about, is a concept. If you're not careful, the world will return to being a lot like it was before, only worse. Because behind this health crisis, there is also a huge economic and social crisis."
Pierre Henry is particularly worried about the migrants who lived on the streets prior to the lockdown and who were temporarily put up in housing at the start of the quarantine. "A lot of accommodation was made available, but will they remain? I have the feeling that the winter safe period [when the French government must provide society's most vulnerable with a roof over their heads - eds. note] will be extended, because we can't just force thousands of people into the streets, can we? I'm hoping this year will allow for an exception."
'Even more people in the streets'
Philippe Caro, a city councilor in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis and a member of the migrant aid group Solidarité Migrants Wilson, disagrees: "Hundreds of people were left in the streets during lockdown, and there will be even more of them in the streets in the coming few weeks."
During lockdown, the aid group continued to carry out its food distributions, handing out around 1,000 meals per week, mainly in northern Paris and in the Seine-Saint-Denis district. It also collaborated with the aid group Chauffeurs du Coeur to hand out 500 meals at the Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) near the town of Roissy. "It was for foreign passengers who got stranded because of the lockdown, as well as for migrants and homeless people. They were sleeping at the TGV [high-speed train - eds. note] station in Roissy, which was closed during the lockdown."
The group has called on the country's mayors to use their requisitioning powers to provide migrants and homeless people with accommodation. "There are almost 84,000 hotel rooms in Paris and 5,313 in Roissy. All of them are more or less empty because of the lack of tourists. But no mayor, or local authority, has acted on that so far. Authorities have applied the same technique as before, meaning they put up partial, temporary shelters and leave masses of people outside," Caro criticizes.
Philippe Caro adds that the lifting of the lockdown means that authorities will try to clamp down on the people on the streets even more. "A few days ago, they closed the CDG airport terminals that had been kept open at night. Those, who had been sleeping there, were forced to seek refuge at the Roissy TGV station, where there have been several suspected cases of the coronavirus. It's dangerous," he says, adding that he fears these people may also risk fines for not respecting the new health guidelines which requires people to wear face masks while inside stations.
Post-lockdown, the group will continue to have volunteers on the ground and will carry on with its distributions of food and other necessities to people sleeping rough in both Paris and Roissy.
"And so our plan is to continue to adapt to the situation, and refine our operating methods in order to be able to respond as best as we can." Toulza says that even if La Chorba's field operations continued during the lockdown period, "they were disrupted and have to adjust to be able to respond to this health emergency."
"For example, we launched a crowdfunding campaign to be able to offer health kits and baby kits for people in need."
'Get the message accross'
As France enters its first phase of eased lockdown restrictions, Alexis Toulza says La Chorba will try to inform migrants as much as possible about the new social distancing guidelines and how they can protect themselves against the coronavirus: "Since they set out on their migration journeys, their safety concerns have been very concrete: The ability to sleep safely, to be able to eat, wash, and avoid violence and addiction. This means that for them, the problems linked to the virus sometimes become secondary, and weve noted that some are fairly careless.
"These people also tend to live in groups, to protect themselves and to help each other out, on the streets, or in makeshift camps, so social distancing measures are more difficult to enforce," Alexis Toulza highlights, adding that one of the main post-lockdown challenges is to "get the message across" to migrants who often don't have the same access to information as others.
When it comes to legal issues, the Information and Support Group for Immigrants (Gisti) says that "the mechanism that was put into place [during the lockdown] will essentially continue until the beginning of June, although some activity was resumed on May 12."
The organisation's telephone hotline for legal matters, which was suspended for a few weeks during lockdown, reopened last week and is now open every afternoon from Monday to Friday, between 3pm and 6pm. Migrants can also consult Gisti's lawyers online.
Gisti spokeswoman Claire Rodier says the in-person 'asylum' consultation services in the 18th arrondissement (district) of Paris was suspended on March 17, and was replaced by an "emergency only" telephone and email service that is available on Monday and Thursday afternoons. The full service "will gradually resume in the coming weeks," Rodier further explains.
At CÈDRE, a day center run by Secours Catholique in northern Paris, the focus is on upholding its mail holding services, which is used by around 1,000 migrants in the city. But the new social distancing rules means that the facility has had to adopt new procedures.
"Normally we have between 150 and 300 people passing through here every day, whether it's for information or to take part in our socio-cultural activities. And so for the past four weeks, our volunteers have carried out an enormous job to organise mail delivery by appointment, all the while respecting the social distancing rules. During the lockdown, we also set up a telephone service that operated on full steam five days a week, reassuring people and informing them about their rights," CÈDRE Director Aurélie Radisson says, adding that the centre also made sure to check in on "around 50 very isolated people several times a week" by phone.
Although the centre will be closed until May 25 at the least (except for those who have registered their address there), Aurélie Radisson says her team are currently preparing itself for the reopening of the centre: "We know that we will not be able to receive people like we did before, when we would have up to 100 people in here at the same time. We have to reinvent ourselves. For example, we will have to keep our sports or wellness workshop groups very small and out on the basketball court. We're also thinking about the best way to reinstall the phone charging stations that the migrants use – from the feedback we've received so far, this is something they miss a lot."
The arts and performance group Atelier des Artistes en Exil (AAE) is also thinking about new ways to continue to provide its services, and has invested in new offices in central Paris. "This is a new start for us, we are quite enthusiastic, even if all the events our members were scheduled to appear in have been canceled and we're now waiting for instructions from the government in order to know what to do next. Especially when it comes to resuming our public events," AAE Director Judith Depaule says. As of next Monday, AAE members are expected to start dropping by the new offices.
Until then, the AAE continues to plan for its post-lockdown return to Paris' cultural life, whether in the form of smaller meetings with members or by staging an exhibition or a show in its windows. "There are a lot of things you can do. I feel calm because our members have doubled up on their creativity during the lockdown. Life in exile has already taught them to adapt to different situations and change their way of life, and so they're a step ahead of the rest of us," she says.