People wait for a bus to leave the reception center for migrants and refugees near Porte de La Chapelle.
People wait for a bus to leave the reception center for migrants and refugees near Porte de La Chapelle. Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

A 400-bed shelter north of the city was supposed to be a model for the rest of France. One year in, it’s “anything but humanitarian and devalues the refugees.”

A year ago this month, the first humanitarian center for refugees opened its doors in Paris. With 400 beds, the Centre de Premier Acceuil, or Initial Welcome Center, was designed to offer emergency shelter, showers, and nourishment to those in need for 5 to 10 days. During this time, refugees would also be directed towards longer term solutions in shelters and housing for asylum seekers across France.

The center, a colorful and inflatable structure (the domes of the center call to mind a hot-air balloon) is located in the north of Paris at Porte de la Chapelle. An initiative of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, the center was intended to be a solution, or at least a partial solution, to the increasingly visible refugee crisis in the city. In collaboration with Emmaus Solidarity, a humanitarian organization dating back to 1949 in France, and Utopia 56, a newcomer on the humanitarian scene, the City of Paris opened its first official welcome center in November 2016.

In September, Utopia 56 announced their departure from the project, calling the center an “administrative trap” for refugees. In a statement, the group explained their decision to leave: “We had hoped that this center… would be a model for the establishment of five similar centers in France along the migratory route of the migrants. It has become evident, however, that the administrative treatment of the refugees with the center is anything but humanitarian and devalues the refugees.”

For Utopia 56, the main issue with the center is the requirement that refugees seeking shelter have their files evaluated by the Center for Administrative Status Review (CESA). If, during the review, it is discovered that an individual has already been fingerprinted in another Schengen country, the individual faces expulsion based on the Dublin Agreement which stipulates that an asylum seeker must make his or her asylum claim in the first country of arrival. Additionally, if an asylum seeker has been in France for over 120 days without yet making an official asylum claim, he or she could face deportation proceedings. Utopia 56 calls the process “Kafkaesque,” an attempt to get rid of refugees rather than to help them with their basic needs.

Over the past year, the streets, underpasses, and medians surrounding Porte de la Chapelle quickly came to resemble exactly what the City of Paris was hoping to alleviate. In July, police removed some 2,700 people sleeping in the area around the center in a raid that began at dawn. It was the 34th police raid of a sizeable refugee camp in the city since 2015. In August, another raid took place, this time 2,500 people were removed.

On a recent evening at a fast food restaurant near Porte de la Chapelle, Utopia 56 co-founder Yann Manzi and Ivan Leray, the Paris Coordinator for the group, were finishing a quick meal before tackling the evening’s work. The most pressing item on their agenda is to find temporary shelter—even just for the night—for some of the most vulnerable people living on the streets around the refugee center. Pregnant women, families, and unaccompanied minors are of particular concern, says Manzi. “There are many people with no solutions.”

Though Utopia 56’s official work with the city’s refugee center came to an end in late October, it does not mean they are leaving or giving up their work. Instead, they will redouble their efforts outside of the center; in the streets of Paris, including in the vicinity of Porte de la Chapelle, and in other regions across France. “We’re not letting go of anything, we’re not giving up,” says Manzi.

As they have from the beginning, Manzi and his colleagues at Utopia 56 depend largely on volunteers and the good will of citizens to make their initiatives work. Together, they collect donations, distribute food and clothing, and try to find shelter—one night at a time—for those sleeping on the streets.

People eat in a canteen at the center for humanitarian center near Porte de la Chapelle. (Jacky Naegelen)

Manzi, a festival organizer, was inspired to start Utopia 56 after his first visit to Calais. He, along with wife, son, and several friends, figured they had the expertise necessary to mobilize and organize the logistics involved with feeding and sheltering thousands of people; they also knew how to manage large teams of volunteers.

In the beginning, Utopia 56 focused their efforts in Calais. Though the massive refugee camp known as the “Jungle” was destroyed in October 2016, there are still volunteers working to feed and shelter those who remained behind; not in well-formed and visible camps like the so-called Jungle, but in smaller groups of tents and sleeping bags, often hidden in the woods.

In March 2016, when Grand-Synthe mayor Damien Carême decided to open the first refugee camp in France built to international standards, Doctors Without Borders built the structures and Utopia 56 was called in to manage the place. Some 3,000 volunteers worked to build community kitchens and offer blankets, clothes, supplies, and French and English lessons. Utopia 56 left the project after five months, in August, citing the camp’s increasingly “restrained” welcome policy. In April 2017, the camp at Grand-Synthe burned to the ground, a result of arson.

In spite of continual setbacks, the humanity offered by everyday citizens is heartening, says Manzi. Since June, Utopia 56 has been working with Paris residents willing to open their homes to people in urgent need of shelter. Even people who have little space in their apartments have come forth and offered other solutions: one bookstore owner has eight refugees sleeping in his shop every night; another local business owner offered space in a room behind her bakery. In this way, Utopia 56 manages to find between 30 to 50 emergency beds per night. “This is what we’re going to continue to develop,” says Manzi, adding that citizen engagement of this nature fulfills a practical need and also sends a strong political message.

And while Manzi describes feeling encouraged by the kindness of strangers, he expresses despair at authorities’ treatment of the migrants. As a September statement issued by Utopia 56 described: “These past weeks, the police have been waking up the migrants every two hours to make them leave. This is torture. Utopia 56 aspires to humanitarian centers that respect the law and where the migrants are truly welcomed. It’s not the case.”

In January, Doctors Without Borders issued a similar statement decrying police brutality around the center. “The police harass migrants by confiscating their blankets, sometimes using tear gas to disperse them, going so far as to forbid them to sit in the queue of the humanitarian center of the Chapel where they wait for a place to stay. These unacceptable practices endanger the lives of migrants: [Doctors Without Borders] teams have had to take care of eight people close to hypothermia.”

As the NGO’s program coordinator, Corinne Torre, described, “In the middle of winter, the authorities should be able to provide accommodation for all migrants in emergency. Instead, the police confiscate their blankets or force them to stand in line for the center for hours in an attempt to shield the distressed population from public view. This denial of reality through violence must stop.”

With or without Utopia 56, the future of the humanitarian center at Porte de la Chapelle remains uncertain. Already at the time of its construction last year, its dismantlement was on the horizon. The center is required to leave its current location next spring to make way for the Condorcet campus project, a sprawling new extension of the Sorbonne.

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