Confined outside: Asylum seekers in Paris remain invisible during pandemic

While 67 million people across France are grappling with the new confinement measures imposed by the government to slow the spread of COVID-19, a particularly vulnerable group of society is once again glaringly overlooked: asylum seekers.

In northern Paris alone, more than three thousand migrants are living outside in camplike settings. Seeking shelter from both the impending winter and the pandemic in shoddy tents, they do not have the luxury of being able to confine themselves at “home.”

Despite the successful legal action taken earlier this summer by associations attempting to require the government to improve hygiene in the camps and provide access to basic services, such as water points, sanitation facilities, showers and dumpsters, very little has been done. The situation of these young men and women — hailing from countries rife with war and human rights abuses like Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan and Eritrea — remains dire.

Even before the onset of the pandemic, asylum seekers in Paris have been marginalized by society.

Police continue to violently dismantle camps in the middle of the night, destroying tents and forcing their inhabitants to once again flee for safety. Often having to leave behind their belongings, they are left with nothing and have nowhere to go. In the absence of any solution offered by the police, many of them simply walk to a new location and try to rebuild some form of shelter, usually underneath a bridge further outside of town.

Unoffiical migrant camps continue to spread throughout the suburbs of northern Paris after being violently dismantled in the capital

With no end to this cruel cycle in sight, it is not surprising that many asylum seekers — including unaccompanied minors — grapple with depression and suicidal ideation. Indeed, associations who provide support to migrants in Paris have long been reporting cases of suicide by drowning, hanging, or by train, among others.

It is only in exposing this stark reality that progress can be made. Far too often, the lives and stories of these courageous individuals are overlooked when they are referred to as a category: an asylum seeker, a refugee, an “illegal” immigrant. These terms are used to cast them as the “other” in the simplified narrative pitched by politicians who try to vilify those who are simply in search of a safer life.

Above all else, they are human, and they have a right to survive just like you and me.

Three brave Afghan men (*names changed for privacy) are speaking up to share their experience of being exiled in Paris while in the midst of a pandemic:

Fahad*, 28 years old, was a tailor in Laghman province, Afghanistan, before the violence that continues to ravage his country led him to seek asylum in France. After nearly a year of traveling by foot and other means of transportation facilitated by smugglers, he arrived in northern Paris earlier this year in March. In addition to speaking Dari, he is also proficient in English and German.

Upon his arrival, he spent one month living in the informal migrant camp at Porte de la Chapelle, a haphazard collection of tents beneath an overpass at the edge of northern Paris — until the police unceremoniously evacuated the area in the middle of the night.

Fahad recalled, “A few days ago, the police came and told us to get out. It was around three o’clock in the morning and we were all asleep. They told us we could not sleep there anymore. I asked him where I could sleep and he replied, ‘I am doing my job, I don’t know where you can go. That’s not my problem.’”

Fahad and a small group of fellow Afghans walked approximately 15 minutes to the nearby town of Aubervilliers and set up camp underneath another small bridge. However, as his only reference point for available services is at Porte de la Chapelle, he must walk back to his previous location any time he wants to take a shower, eat, use a toilet, charge his phone in the metro station, or even search for potable water.

“We come from Afghanistan, our country is at war, and we come here to save our lives. But here we are sleeping outside under a bridge, and we can’t even take a shower. If we want to take a shower, we have to walk 15 minutes back to Porte de la Chapelle and wait in a long line, sometimes 2 hours. Thankfully, some people give us food there and we bring it [back to our tents] to eat.”

Eating only once a day and lacking enough clean water to wash their hands, clothes or drink enough — the basic needs of Fahad and the other asylum seekers living with him are hardly being met. It’s difficult to imagine that the country he is describing is France, one of the most powerful countries in the Western world.

Zahid*, a 22-year old former policeman from Afghanistan, made the decision to leave his country after a narrow escape from death. Kidnapped by the Taliban along with several other of his police comrades, he was brutally beaten, tortured and left disfigured from his time in captivity. “The war in my country was very bad,” he explained. “When I was taken by the Taliban, they cut off my finger, broke my arm and hit my head with a gun. I thought, if they can cut off my finger then they will kill me next time. One day, I will die.”

After some of the officials in his province bribed his captors, Zahid was eventually released. Grateful to have survived his traumatizing ordeal, he quickly fled Afghanistan. Only 20 years old at the time, he recalls how difficult it was to leave behind all of his family and friends, but felt he had no other choice for survival. He spent the next year and a half traveling to France, assisted by smugglers, before reaching Paris. “I came here to have a good life, to be safe and healthy,” Zahid explained.

However, the conditions he is now facing in Paris are a stark contrast from what he had imagined during his long trek to safety. Spending the past several months living underneath a bridge has left him feeling more depressed than ever. “I am feeling very bad, we sleep three people inside a tent that’s meant for only one person,” said Zahid. “We don’t have any choice here. We have to live like this.”

The congested tents are particularly troubling considering the current pandemic. Supplies like masks and hand sanitizer, necessary to help curb the spread of COVID-19, are in short supply in the camps. Zahid explained, “The police gave me a mask when I went to use the metro, so I kept it. I have been using the same mask for a few weeks now since I cannot find any new ones. We also share a bottle of hand sanitizer, but it is not enough for everyone.”

Beyond the issue of sanitation, the lack of access to health services is also apparent. Zahid described the constant stomach pain he feels that often prevents him from sleeping at night, but has not been able to see a doctor or obtain any medicine to help alleviate his symptoms.

He recalled that someone living in a nearby tent has a visible skin rash that has been left untreated, while others suffer relentlessly from digestive issues — which are especially problematic given the lack of public toilets within a 15-minute walking radius of the campsite. There is also the constant fear of contracting COVID-19, given the cramped quarters of the camps, Zahid said.

The lack of dignified, sanitary living conditions is only one of many challenges faced by the thousands of migrants currently spread throughout Paris and its outskirts.

Amir* was a shopkeeper in Afghanistan before violence in his war-torn hometown pushed him to seek asylum in Europe. Despite the heartbreak he felt leaving behind his parents, 5 brothers and 3 sisters, he felt that Afghanistan was no place to build his life. “I could not imagine getting married and having children in Afghanistan because of all the violence. I wanted to find a safer place to start my future,” said Amir.

Two years after leaving Afghanistan, Amir finally reached France. Describing why he chose France as his destination, Amir stated, “My friend was already here and he told me it was a good country. I don’t have friends in other countries to help explain the asylum process because I didn’t know how to do it. My friend in France said he would help me but when I arrived, he could not welcome me in his home, so I have been living in the street.”

Dejected by this lack of support, Amir explained that his life these days consists of walking over to collect food at Porte de la Chappelle before returning to the camps to spend most of the day sleeping. “I want to go into the city to ask about my asylum procedure. But I don’t have money and cannot buy any metro ticket, so the police do not allow me to travel. I had to come back here to my tent. The tent is my home now.”

At only 22 years old, Amir has many ambitions and laments being exiled in a tent all day long. “We would work if someone offered, but no one is coming here to propose a job,” Amir laughed grimly.

Fighting boredom and anxiety caused by his current situation, Amir tries to go for a short run every day in order to build up his strength and avoid getting sick. “Our surroundings are not good, you see all around us, the conditions here are terrible,” he said. “It’s too bad, we are coming from Afghanistan to stay alive, to stay safe, and instead we are in these conditions, losing our minds. It’s really too bad.”

Now, Amir’s greatest fear is that his asylum case will not be approved by the French government. However, he tries his best to remain optimistic, despite the challenges that come along with living on the fringe of society. “My hope in France is to have a good life. To have freedom, to do sports. I want to help others like me someday.”

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In this period of extreme uncertainty across the globe, let us not forget the most vulnerable among us. Let us not turn a blind eye to their plight but instead reach out a hand in solidarity, extending our empathy and friendship.

We have a collective responsibility to support our neighbors who struggle. They have arrived in their current precarious state through no fault of their own.

The world may not be watching, but that doesn’t mean it won’t make a world of difference to our fellow human beings.

To support the life-saving work being done for migrants in northern Paris by the non-profit organization Solidarité Migrants Wilson, click here.

Sharing stories of humanity, family and my journey working with marginalized groups. Hoping to help conquer xenophobia with radical compassion.