Younis Ahmed watched Wrestlemania on a television set up in a in a temporary refectory enclosed in plastic sheeting and heated.
This room, in a “welcome center” for arriving migrants in Paris, is a substantial step up from the streets where the 27-year-old from Sudan spent his first two weeks in the city.
“When you come here, it is so difficult,” he says. After hearing about the center from friends who had arrived before him, he spent days sleeping across from it in the traffic median of a major road, waiting for a spot to open inside. “Maybe tomorrow, I will transfer,” he added, to more permanent housing, in one of the shelters spread more widely around the country.
This center is meant as an entry point for the estimated 250 migrants who arrive in the Paris region every day. The vast majority come from Afghanistan or, like Ahmed, from the horn of Africa.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced plans last May for a triage point to orient people more quickly into the French social system and eliminate informal encampments from city streets.
Between June of 2015 and the camp’s opening in November, the city cleared 31 tent cities that steadily grew in size. They sent residents to emergency housing but the process frequently became chaotic, with confrontations between migrants and police. On numerous occasions police resorted to using tear gas. New encampments were reappearing more quickly and growing. The last tent city dismantled from under elevated metro tracks had reached 3,800 people.
The city ended up creating two centers: one for women and children just south of the city and the one where Ahmed stayed in a neighborhood in the north of the city called Porte de la Chapelle.
“There were concerns of course,” says Eric Lejoindre, the local mayor of the 18th arrondissement, the sub-division of city government that encompasses this area. “I’m not going to say the residents of Porte de la Chapelle were thrilled that we were putting it here.”
At the time, he says, the north of the city had already become the arrival point for migrants so residents had walked by encampments in public spaces for years. Because of that, he says, they understood the need.
“They would say, well, why do it here? Because we already have a lot of problems here and you’re adding another.” But, he notes, “They weren’t saying, ‘Don’t build your humanitarian center.’”
Today, this center houses 400 men at a time in modular structures set up on two floors of a gutted building. In the first three months, 3,740 people passed through, generally staying around a week until they’re sent elsewhere.
Despite the short stays, a great deal of planning went into the complex’s design. Migrants entering the center are first processed in a striking inflatable (and thus movable) grey and yellow structure, referred to as “the bubble.” Those who choose to apply for asylum will get transferred to shelters in France. Those who already applied in other European countries may get sent back. About a third opt to take proffered flights to their home countries.
Each detached “cabin” has four beds, four cupboards that lock, four electric outlets and—since this is France—four pieces of art framed by volunteers.
“It could have been a big dormitory of 400 beds,” says Bruno Morel, director* of Emmaüs Solidarité, the non-profit running daily operations for the government, but this arrangement supports “dignity,” and a level of “normality.”
The current site has been committed for 18 months, with the possibility for the structures to move elsewhere after that.
The location here in Porte de la Chapelle has allowed it to take advantage of an existing network of volunteers in the era of the tent city. They’ve helped fill in the gap for those waiting outside. Three to four people sleep in each of the 20 or so shelters. Others have sleeping bags spread outside them on the ground. A milk crate outside one enclosure is stuffed with pairs of sneakers.
Anne Combaz, who lives nearby, arrived outside the center with a box full of supplies for coffee and tea on a recent, cold morning. “In the evenings you see vans stop. They have couscous, all sorts of things,” she says. A recent report by aid group Care4Calais estimated 400 migrants still sleep in the streets of Paris, a far cry from the thousands living in tent cities. But it also appears that police have have—in some cases—dispersed new encampments more aggressively, sometimes confiscating blankets and belongings. In mid-February, the city took a new step around the camp: ornamental boulders filling the median where people had slept.
Combaz doesn’t talk to her neighbors about her own efforts, “because then you get into endless conversation with people saying oh you shouldn’t help them.”
“I don't judge,” she says. “But I know, for me, I don't want to stay doing nothing.”
*Correction: The name of Bruno Morel’s organization and his position have been updated for accuracy.