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A Year in the North Paris Camps: Why we need to Collaborate not Centralise

The end of a year and the beginning of a new one makes us reflect on the recent past. It makes us sum up all that has happened. The year 2016 has been devastating in many ways for many of us. But beyond the emotional hurt, there are some cold facts that we have to deal with.

Refugees in the local Neighbourhood

During this year, I have seen the formation and subsequent demolition of many camps in Paris,and the one in Calais. The process was always the same: small groups of rejected, lost people gathering around some of the centres and institutions whose purpose is to help refugees. Very quickly a few become a dozen, then a hundred, then more. By the time any kind of action is taken by the authorities, the numbers have risen to the thousands. The time that passes between the beginnings of the refugee camps forming on the streets and any form of intervention, can vary from several weeks to several months.

In the meantime, the situation on the streets causes concern, even anger. Sadly, it is often the resulting negative public opinion informs the way authorities deal with the refugees and negatively impacts the treatment they receive. Instead of criticising the institutions and their failures in accommodating and processing the refugees and asylum seekers, the blame and the shame is directed towards refugees themselves: Shamed for sleeping on the street, in the middle of European capital, for living in tents just by the traffic lanes, together with their children and pregnant women. It’s not easy to come to terms with this part of human nature - that uncritical of authority chooses the easy path of blaming the victims.

"Solving" the problem, but only for some

Through the past months, I have watched the local neighborhoods of these unofficial, pop-up camps morph from indifferent, at times even compassionate, into unfriendly and fully hostile towards the refugees and those trying to help. The result of incompetence of the authorities gives rise to the impression that Paris, and therefore all of France, is “flooded” with refugees. In actual fact only six percent of the refugee population is currently present in France, and that is of the refugees present in Europe only. A small number for a large European country. Truisms such as “well, we can't house all the misery of this world" are used to numb us against our conscience and against compassion.

Amidst this rising anti-refugee atmosphere, I’ve spent these last festive days in the camps in the north of Paris, like I do most days in my adopted city. Since opening, Utopia 56 has taken exclusivity on volunteering in official camp in north part of Paris. The current aspiration is to provide shelter for 10 days, by when all refugees should be moved on to more permanent accommodation. But as is often the case this “solution” is not all it claims to be. The line for morning admission form right after the lunch-time food distribution on the day before hand. The stress of waiting in line for 18 hours ahead of the 8am admission, which will only be available for a few, takes its toll and manifest itself in problems and conflict. Refugees may wait for days, if not weeks. Often we speak to refugees which have been returned to the streets from the “safe shelter” they were apparently provided after the initial 10 days. The information provision has suffered as well. Where there used to a number of volunteers handing out the improvised, badly photocopied flyers with information on free showers, distribution spots, where to find clothes or a nearby resto-du-coeur (the French equivalent of Soup Kitchens) … there is now nothing. Not only does this mean refugees have less access to resources, they are also robbed of some sense of orientation this provided them. With the efforts now focused only on those inside the new camps, those not able to gain admission are often left worse off. The structures and routines that had emerged previously have also been affected. Any distributions outside of the camps have become more difficult, faced with a crowd of people left to themselves, stressed, abandoned and with a only a vague hope of getting shelter very much on edge.

Most of this results out of the lack of collaboration. This new centralization has ignored the work that has been ongoing. We have to understand that there is not one organisation or group involved in the refugee crisis. Not one group is sufficiently engaged or strong to provide help to all refugees in the area. More than that, the presence of many different organizations and independent volunteers, no matter how chaotic it may be at times, is the closest we come to democracy in this context.

It takes all of us

It is crucial, now more than ever, for all of us to work together, even if it can appear sloppy or uncoordinated. Cooperation among volunteers should be a valuable goal. Centralisation, however, has its perils. It can lead to monocultures in terms of leadership, the enforced dominance of only one approach or ideology to helping or even worse. It can also lead to a “closing-off” both of the refugees and the issue to the outside world. If we look at what happened along the Balkan route last year, camps soon went from transparent to closed in the name of protecting the refugees as solely one NGO took over. Not only does this prevent scrutiny but the result was also that it allowed politicians to visit and to praise the situation, whilst refugees in general were removed from sight for the public and the media. It allows us all to believe that things are being taken care of. It speaks to the comfort that we wish to feel about this subject, but betrays the actual situation of the refugees.

Claiming that one individual, or one group, alone is capable of addressing the sheer scale of humanitarian work required is misguided. The problems that refugees face are very complex, highly individual, and the help needed varies greatly. Aspects such as the appropriate knowledge of the appropriate language, or local administration can be crucial to providing support effectively. The complexity of refugee’s situation can only be overcomes if the whole breadth of skills, experiences, and perspectives are brought to the table. Most of all, we can only address this by facing up to the challenge this situation poses to our moral framework and with true interest and engagement of the population at large.

Danica Mracevic Jurisic

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Paris, France

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