This week, around 300 migrants set up camp in the Villemin garden in Paris, hoping to be provided with emergency accommodation by authorities. They were supported by a number of NGOs and local residents.
*Note: This article was originally written in French and published on June 1, when migrants were camping in the garden Villemin. By time of publication in English (June 4), the migrants had already been moved to emergency shelters.
On this first day of June, the Villemin garden, located near the Gare de l'Est in Paris, awakens under the sun. Usually not very busy at the beginning of the morning, the lawns of the park are already occupied by hundreds of people.
Huddled under gray blankets, bodies weary from yet another night outside slowly emerge. "I'm here because I just want a roof over my head," says Kami. Since arriving in France in 2019, this 29-year-old Somali has known nothing but the streets.
Kami is one of some 300 migrants who took over the garden two days earlier, supported by the Requisitions collective, which includes several associations such as the Right to Housing (DAL), Utopia 56 and Solidarity Migrants Wilson (SMW). They all gathered at Place de la République on May 30 in the hope of finding decent accommodation.
While nearly 500 people -- half of them families -- were taken in by the state, about 700 were not so lucky. Half of them went back to live in camps in the north of Paris. The rest, mostly from East Africa and Afghanistan, are now staying in the Villemin garden in the 10th arrondissement of the French capital.
'Without the charities, I wouldn't be able to feed myself'
It is their second morning in the heart of Paris, and everyone still seems to be trying to get their bearings in this hastily set up camp.
In the middle of the garden, volunteers start distributing breakfast; later will come lunch and the evening meal.
"When they arrived on Sunday, the exiles had nothing to eat because we had not foreseen that so many people would be left on the street," says Philippe Caro of SMW. Aid workers then launched appeals for donations on social networks and through their contacts.
Through those efforts, an impressive network of solidarity has developed. "Several associations offered us their help, like the Salvation Army and the Restaurants of the Heart," Caro says. In addition to these large organizations, there are smaller ones such as a group based in the Yvelines, the Team of Hope, which will provide food as well. Local residents and restaurant owners also come by during the day to bring things to eat.
"One thing is certain, everyone is getting enough to eat," says Caro, who managing the food donations and calls from groups wanting to help.
This is one less source of stress for these migrants who lack everything. "Without the volunteers, I wouldn't be able to feed myself and I would be starving," says Mohammad, a 24-year-old Chadian who has been in France for six months.
While food distribution is being taken care of, access to hygiene remains more problematic. There are only two toilets available for the 300 migrants in the park. The NGOs have asked for new ones to be added, but the government has categorically refused, worried that the camp will become permanent.
To deal with the most urgent needs, hygiene kits containing toothpaste, toothbrushes, masks, hydroalcoholic gel and soap have been provided. The few fountains in the park allow for minimal washing.
Difficult negotiations with the authorities
Accustomed to this kind of encampment, the charities were able to quickly take care of logistics despite the immediacy of the situation. But for how long? Relief groups are negotiating with the government to create hundreds of additional lodgings, but talks are stalling. "The authorities do not seem to be willing to move things forward and provide shelter for these people," Caro says.
The migrants, too, are getting impatient. "We're better off here than on the sidewalks of the Porte de Chapelle, but how long will it last? We just want to live with dignity and build our lives in France," says Kamal*, a Sudanese man in his twenties, sitting with friends on a blanket.
Most of these exiles have been living in France for several years. Some of them are dubliners, others have been refused asylum, others are asylum seekers and some are legal refugees. Many have been shuffled for months or years between emergency shelters in the region, reliant at times on the support of the Requisitions collective and victim to the police’s dismantling of camps at other times.
At each turn, the story repeats itself. "I have been sent to these shelters several times, but it is always temporary. I always have to go back to the streets," Kami says. "I just want to have a roof over my head and not worry about the police, rodents or the rain."
It's supposed to start raining in the next few hours. "What are we going to do when the weather gets worse? What is the government doing to protect these people?" asks Yann Manzi, founder of Utopia 56, who has been sleeping alongside the migrants since Sunday. "Access to accommodation is a right, the authorities must put their hands in their wallets and respect the law," adds Jean-Baptiste Eyraud of the DAL, determined to keep up the pressure.
*The name has been changed.