Both Kavita and Tatiana have spent time working in and around the ‘Bubble’ (La Bulle), a temporary humanitarian centre set up by the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, in early 2016 in the 18th arrondissement, Porte de la Chapelle. Although the Humanitarian Centre takes in refugees daily and can accommodate up to 400 people a day, the centre is not set up as a ‘camp’ for long-term accommodation. Volunteers from various NGOs and charities operate within and outside the centre to provide information, clothing, supplies, a warm meal and assistance, including hospital visits and asylum claims for minors.
Despite being a central refugee node in Paris, the ‘Bubble’ is not resourced to meet the shelter demands of all refugees queueing each day outside the centre. Depending on the week, since the start of our research between 800 and 2000 homeless refugees sleep rough in the neighbouring streets, with cycles of evictions rendering the situation even more precarious for both refugees and civil society actors trying to deliver basic supplies each night.
“Whenever there are evictions, it becomes much more difficult to help refugees who are living on the streets, because they are suddenly more dispersed across the city and therefore more difficult to find.” (Volunteer for Utopia 56 working night shifts, June 2017)
The Bubble remains paradoxical in its function and effects. It is under-resourced as an effective humanitarian centre tending to the diverse needs of migrants coming through its gates, but it has also triggered a constellation of non-traditional humanitarian efforts.
Neither the city nor the national government are prepared to provide for the people who ‘spillover’ from the ‘Bubble’, and plans to do so remain vague and contested. New elected President Macron’s campaign pledge, for example, to deal with refugees “with dignity” has elicited debates regarding the government’s forthcoming migration policies to eradicate “people sleeping in the streets”. Whether this will result in more emergency accommodation or more evacuations and deportations remains to be seen.
In the meantime, it has fallen largely to volunteer groups and NGOs, who for the past two years have provided basic needs and emergency healthcare. Most recently, one of the long-standing volunteer organizations that was working inside the Bubble — tasked with clothing provision, handling of special cases, and properly channelling minors – has stepped down from this role, citing growing concerns over the Bubble’s role as a de-facto detention center. Indeed, over 2016 & 2017, the aspirations of an experimental refugee hub, that could be well integrated into larger asylum-seeking processes, has instead gradually morphed into a zone of control. This is evidenced by the presence of the special mobile French police force, Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) (who have been accused of heavy-handed police tactics both outside the ‘Bubble’ and in Calais), and the increasing difficulty in gaining access to the facilities inside the Bubble.
Furthermore, the issue of frequent ‘evacuations’ or the removal of refugees sleeping rough by the city to disused schools, hospitals, and so on, speaks to the state’s lack of provisioning ability, despite over two years of rapid refugee influx. Many refugees also have to make difficult calculations: whether to seek accommodation in the ‘Bubble’ and expose themselves to potential deportation under the Dublin Amendment, or sleep rough and face evacuations but ultimately continue the journey on to UK (or at least attempt to). For many, the return to Italy would create further precarity and deepen their state of stateless limbo. The lack of clarity in the rules stalls the decision-making process, and we’ve observed a growing number of volunteer asylum lawyers spend time detailing rights.
As we have gotten to know them over the past six months, it is clear that the capacity and will of the various volunteer groups are strained. As volunteers’ stamina and resources are continuously stretched, volunteer groups face a cross-roads: Some suggest they might need to formalize their organizational structures and introduce the necessary systems to start remunerating those who work regularly. The debate is that this would reduce turn-over but on the other hand it could also risk reducing agility and the flexibility of these grassroots initiatives to call on last minute volunteer assistance whenever needed. The other option debated at the end of 2017 was that these solidaity groups (associations civiques) convince the city council to step in by subsidizing the activities or these groups, effectively outsourcing the state’s role as ‘caregiver’ while recognizing that those best equipped to support humanitarian provisions at street levels may be non-traditional humanitarian organisations.
Both options face challenges. The volunteer groups are distrustful of the state’s desire, and fear that stepping away will mean dire consequences for refugees who already face police intimidation and myriad physical and psychological torments. Simultaneously, some of the individual volunteers and volunteer organizations are exploring alternative housing options – from ‘citizen housing networks’, to exploring collaborations with local anarchist-run squats and more long-standing migrant solidarity networks. It is in this landscape of ‘transition’ that volunteers provide services: amidst the impending closure of the Bubble in April 2018; the frustrations of long-term volunteers who find the clothing and food distributions an important but ultimately palliative approach. And finally, this raises larger questions regarding the long-term integration possibilities for refugees especially given the government’s current labour reforms including intentions to move towards more apprenticeships, encouraging self-employment, and emulating Germany’s vocational-training schemes. The challenges go beyond providing for refugees’ basic needs. The questions range from language, education and vocational training to sourcing work opportunities. These are the longer term challenges facing Paris, and indeed France.
In the coming months of 2018, our focus will turn to three key areas. Firstly, we will examine how the plans for the removal of the ‘Bubble’ in spring of 2018 are put into action, and how these changes affect the humanitarian-scapes around Porte de la Chapelle, and what new place-based politics might emerge. Secondly, we will follow the trends of grassroots provisioning of alternative housing, and aim to better understand how this works in practice and what new solidarities are formed in the process. This includes formations of news squats, but also the ways in which private commercial and residential spaces are being transformed into alternative and modular accommodation sites for emergency purposes. Thirdly, we will be further examining the evolution of refugee processing and asylum-seeking in France, looking at the dismantling of the Bubble as a marker of migration policy shifts. This transition raises the following question: at what point in their journeys do refugees decide to risk potential deportation by staying and claiming asylum in France? What procedures are in place and how do they address longer-term integration?