More than 2,000 people live in the make-shift migrant camp in Saint-Denis, on the northern fringe of Paris. After France was ordered into lockdown last week, the already tense climate in the overcrowded camp has become near explosive.
When France was ordered into its second COVID-19 lockdown on October 30, the country’s unaccommodated migrant population was offered few solutions to deal with the new restrictions. While the French have been asked to stay within the four walls of their homes to stem the country’s raging rate of new COVID-19 infections, the 2,000 migrants living in the make-shift camp in Saint-Denis – including at least 10 families - were left to fend for themselves, creating explosive conditions.
A lack of food, the poor sanitary conditions, and of course the fear of contracting COVID-19 have only added fuel to the fire. Aid groups have called on authorities to dismantle the camp "as soon as possible," and offer the migrants proper shelter solutions.
"Nothing has been put into place to help these people," Kerill, who works for the aid group Utopia 56, says. Corinne Torre, from Doctors Without Borders (MSF), agrees. "Everyone has just been left on the streets, without any back-up plan whatsoever, even though we've been alerting authorities [about the situation] for months now," she says, and adds: "I'm very worried."
The migrants, many of them from Afghanistan, live in more than precarious conditions: most of them sleep in tents, but some don’t even have that, and are forced to sleep on tarpaulin sheets that have been spread out on the ground.
In such living conditions, it is extremely difficult to practice social distancing, and even harder to respect COVID-19 sanitary codes. Although the camp has been equipped with a few water points, they are not nearly enough to cater to the large number of migrants living in the camp. The camp, located across from Paris’s Stade de France sports arena, popped up this summer, and has since grown larger and larger every week.
Local authorities only recently installed 10 washroom cubicles and six urinals in the camp after being pressured to do so by aid groups. "We didn't install them earlier because the police in Seine-Saint-Denis told us they were about to evacuate the camp," Oriane Filhol, a deputy mayor who's in charge of the town hall's social solidarity services, explains defensively.
'People are hungry'
But aside from the poor sanitary conditions in the camp, there's also a growing lack of food. "People are hungry," Clarisse, an aid worker at Solidarité Migrants Wilson, says. The group distributes some 2,000 meals to the camp's migrants, three times a week.
After having been "chased out" of the capital, the migrants are finding it increasingly difficult to reach the normal food distribution points, which are located in the northern suburbs of Aubervillier and Saint-Ouen. "The migrants aren't allowed to move around anymore," Torre says, referring to France’s strict lockdown rules, under which people are only allowed to move around outdoors under exceptional circumstances. Any such moves must be justified and be supported with a signed form. Many of the migrants do not fulfill the conditions for such exceptional movements, but even if they would, many don’t understand French well enough to be able to fill the forms out. Without a form, anyone wandering the streets risks a fine of up to €135.
But that’s not the only problem: those who do leave the camp in search of food also risk having their tent stolen by those who still don’t have one.
Local authorities say they are currently working together with aid groups to allow for food distribution to be carried out closer to the camp.
'Facing serious problems'
Torre says the rising tensions in the camp have created a "situation that is about to explode." The best solution would therefore be for authorities to evacuate the camp, she says, and offer the migrants alternative accommodation "as soon as possible. If the camp isn’t dismantled, quickly, we’re facing serious problems," she says. Earlier this week, a camp resident was taken to hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest.
Torre says the best solution would be to put up the migrants in hotels, rather than setting up temporary shelters in gymnasiums as was done during the March 17 – May 11 lockdown. "The gymnasium shelters created COVID-19 clusters," she explains. A study published by MSF in October confirms this, showing that COVID-19 contaminations have been considerably higher among people who have been put up in emergency accommodation centers – and especially among migrants – than among people who have been offered other types of accommodation in the Île-de-France region.
The Saint-Denis town hall insists it has asked the local prefecture to evacuate the camp for several months in a bid to offer the migrants better accommodation solutions. "We're told every time that it will happen 'soon' but nothing happens," Filhol says. "But things seems to be moving a little bit now. The prefect told us just this week that the evacuation will take place soon, in the month of November."
Neither the Ile-de-France nor the Saint-Denis prefectures responded to requests for comment.