Since the closure of the Calais Camp in October 2016, refugees who were not relocated to the CAO “welcome centres” by the French Authorities have gathered in Paris where they live on the streets with others from their home countries, and recently arrived refugees who have gathered in Paris from points across Europe including Italy, Serbia, Hungary and Greece. Whilst the number of refugees returning to the Calais area is increasing daily JCRAG have also begun to support several small grassroots charities working in France with refugees who are living on the streets of Paris. Recently JCRAG have started supporting the Paris Refugee Ground Support (PRGS) and Utopia 56 a French Charity who continue to run the Dunkirk refugee camp and are also helping refugees living on the streets of Paris.
Each night Paris Refugee Ground Support (PRGS) deliver aid between 10pm -3 am to the refugees who are living rough on the streets. This is the best time to locate refugees who have inadequate shelter and who are in most need of blankets/ sleeping bags /clothing. PRGS estimate that 1500 refugees are living in this area.
On this recent trip to Paris, JCRAG members worked with Utopia 56. They now manage the official Paris CAO or “Welcome Centre” that was opened in November 2016 opposite the Porte de la Chappelle Train station. It accommodates up to 400 refugees per night and only accepts men over 18. Women and minors are passed to other charitable agencies elsewhere in the city.
Once admitted refugees get 10 nights maximum inside the centre where they can get clean clothes, have a shower and one hot meal a day and access medical support, legal advice and information about asylum claims, reunification and voluntary return schemes to their home country. After 10 days they are excluded and are either voluntarily relocated to other centres around France or go back out to sleep on the streets nearby whilst their applications are processed by the authorities.
Both Utopia 56 and PRGS regularly run out of supplies, and had requested blankets and warm clothing as a priority, therefore JCRAG decided to send donations and 3 volunteers from Jersey to distribute our aid and report back on the situation in Paris. Following another successful call on the public of Jersey to donate items, JCRAG were able to fill a transit van to full capacity with essential items called for by the groups working in Paris. The use of the van was kindly donated by Falles. JCRAG took over a hundred blankets, sleeping bags and duvets that will make a huge difference to people sleeping outside in the cold together with warm clothes, toiletries and first aid items.
Our volunteers were able to wash clothes and bedding, as well as making tea and handing out sandwiches. Food and drinks for people living on the streets is entirely funded by individuals, charities and faith groups.We also spent some time helping with clothing distribution. As in other camps the quality of donations is variable and shoes and small and medium sized clothes are often in short supply.
The refugees quickly become expert at finding shelter to sleep in. They avoid railway stations and doorways as that attracts the attention of the police or racists. Our volunteers met a man with a broken arm who had been beaten and stabbed whilst sleeping near the railway station. He showed us his wounds and Linda found him some stretchy wool gloves that fitted over his cast. Refugees were also sleeping alongside the railway tracks, on a sort of shelf under the roadway, over vents that throw out warm air and fumes from the metro, amongst boulders, under a motorway flyover, and behind roadwork hoardings. There were people on every piece of wasteland. No tents are allowed as the police will clear them down immediately. Of course there is always safety in numbers and people from the same communities gather together to form “villages”.
The PRGS team were incredibly grateful for the well-sorted and labelled supplies from Jersey. Many of the blankets and sleeping bags we delivered were put straight into another van for distribution that night. The remainder of the Jersey donations were then delivered to Utopia.
Throughout the weekend the JCRAG volunteers had plenty of opportunity to talk with the refugees on the streets. It was both heart-warming and frustrating. The capacity of people to smile or laugh with us whilst living in such terrible conditions is amazing, and a hot drink and a few kind words was clearly appreciated. However the team felt helpless as there was so little they could do to help improve the situation.
The much needed donations and volunteers that JCRAG supplies is just a drop in the ocean, but it can and does, make a big difference to the refugees who are in desperate need of our support.