Tag Archives: immigration

Riot police clear Tunisians from Paris gym as government cuts aid

 

French police have cracked down on Tunisian migrants who have come to this country since the revolution that ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. A group of squatters were flushed out of a Paris gym on Tuesday and the city council says that, thanks to government cuts, their situation is set to get worse.

Maamri is 30-years-old and has been living homeless in Paris for the past six months. On Tuesday night, he was looking for a garden to sleep in after finding his temporary home at a gymnasium in the north-east of the city, closed and blocked off by more than 100 CRS riot police.

“Today, I came back after looking for a job to take a shower, as usual, and to take my things, my bag, my medication, and there was a police officer who told me ‘get out of here and shut your mouth’ before pushing me … I don’t know what I’m going to do … where I’ll go to sleep,” he says.

CRS vans drawn up near the Belleville gym

(Courtney Traub)

Maamri joins upwards of 100 Tunisian migrants who found themselves on the street without their belongings around 10 pm, Tuesday night. They had been illegally occupying the Belleville gymnasium since 1 May but the Paris city council had let them stay – with repeated warnings that the situation was only temporary.

Finally, after extending the deadline at least once, the city moved to shutter it for good on Tuesday.

“We decided to close the gym rather than have it evacuated because we wanted to avoid having to make arrests,” says deputy mayor Pascale Boistard, who is head of integration of non-Europeans.

“We also need to give back this centre to the community, which was unable to access its services since the illegal occupation of the gymnasium. And the roof, in particular, needs repairs,” Nathalie Royer of the mayor’s office added.

Boistard says the city of Paris has struggled to secure alternative housing for the migrants, in cooperation with the NGOs Auroreand France Terre d’Asile. And they were warned in advance that the gym would be closed, she says.

“We had a list of around 80 Tunisian migrants whose situation we have been following closely in cooperation with several organisations, and who have been sleeping regularly at the gym,” says Boistard. “We managed to find emergency housing for 40 of them. Of the 40 others, several refused our propositions and some remained without a solution.”

Royer says that Paris is the only city in France to have set up an action plan to aid the migrants, who left Tunisia after the revolution that overthrew Ben Ali’s government. More than 5,000 people landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa in January and, as the French governmentanticipated, many went on to France to find work and a better life.

But budget problems have caused services to Tunisian refugees to screech to a halt. The mayor’s office says by the time the emergency action plan will have expired on 31 August, the state will have spent 1.4 million euros on emergency housing and aid to Tunisian migrants since the start of the Arab Spring.

“Unfortunately the plan won’t be extended. The resources are simply not there,” says Boistard. “And it’s not our job but the state’s. We started the action plan because this is a terrible humanitarian crisis. The state refuses to take care of the Tunisian migrants, and its only response is to arrest and deport them.”

Boistard sees the situation getting much worse in the face of severe budgetary constraints and plans by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to cut back on emergency housing.

“By September, I expect 5,000 additional homeless foreigners and French people to be out on the streets,” she says.

The city’s explanations were of little comfort to many of the Tunisians left on the street on Tuesday night. They blamed the French government for the lack of aid.

Brahim, 16, says he came to France looking for work and a better life but has felt disillusioned since arriving. “In Italy, people helped us all the time. Now that we’re in France, nothing. There are so many Arabs here but no one is helping us.”

For Maamri, every day since he left Tunisia six months ago has been a struggle. Living without an income, he says he subsists on one meal a day, which he usually scrounges from local cafes. “It’s like I’m doing Ramadan [the Muslim fasting month],” he jokes.

For many like Maamri, dreams of creating a new life in Europe are wearing thin.

“I came here because it’s Paris,” he says. “You know, the dream of Paris. But it’s been so hard. I think I might just go back home.”

Reprinted from Radio France International on July 7, 2011.

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The things we do for freedom

In honor of the Human Rights Festival currently showing in Paris, I’d like to tell the stories of a few of my immigrant friends in France. As immigration laws get tighter in France and around the world, it’s worth considering their human effects. One must ask, what makes one human more worthy of rights than another? Are country borders more important than saving a human soul? Before we write a law restricting access to those in need, we must realize that in fact every person’s needs are the same, regardless of nationality: clean water and food, decent housing, education, medical care, etc. Governments must reconcile the need of those within their country borders and those who arrive seeking help.

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Mila is Serbian. She came to France 11 years ago with her Serbian husband, who worked in construction. She soon found work in a local grocery store, learned the language and integrated into society. Three years later, she and her husband divorced. She chose to stay in France, and had no problem renewing her visa. All she did when she moved houses following the divorce, was to go to the prefecture to change her address. Her new visa arrived soon after with the same status, even though now she had no links to France, besides having lived in the country for three years. At the time, her country was in the throngs of war – this may be the only reason she was not sent back home. Now, when she goes back to Serbia, she is disgusted by the prices in the clothing and shoe shops. The Serbian economy is no pitiful that an average salary is the equivalent to 150 euros a month. Yet, the prices in the shops are the same as in France. The distance between the rich and the poor is growing, and finding jobs is nearly impossible. Mila’s father has been out of work for 10 years, after the plant where he worked closed. He has since not been able to find work. Mila’s mother has never worked. Thus, every month, Mila sends part of her paycheck home to help her family survive.

Palden is Tibetan. He was born in India and has never been to Tibet. However, he was born with and always has had “refugee” status in India, given no passport but a special travel pass instead. Unlike France or America, one cannot be born into a nationality there. Your nationality is predetermined and the line between Indian and otherwise is strictly separated. For this reason, Palden came to France to find work, to leave his refugee status behind and to make a new life for himself as a French citizen. Once here, he had to stay mum on his life in India. If discovered, he would be sent back. After all, why would a Tibetan need to escape India? He is not in danger there, it is a safe haven. However, he will never have full Indian rights, so he has come to France. Thus, he says he was born in Tibet, speaks a few lines of Chinese at his visa appointment, and is given a French visa for two years before he can apply for citizenship. Once he receives it, he is free to travel anywhere in the world, in particular, Tibet. He can finally return to his unfamiliar homeland and use his knowledge from the Western world to make change in Tibet.

Tsering is also Tibetan. She was born in Tibet. When she was 18, she crossed the mountains with a friend to escape to India. The pair spent a month on foot, through dense snow and freezing temperatures, living off tsampa – patties made of flour and butter tea. They arrived in India, only to find the living conditions far less desirable than expected. Not only were they strangers in a strange land, but they had to adjust to the toxic water, polluted air and new food. The girls were often sick. They couldn’t find work and couldn’t speak Hindi or English. Eventually, they were fed up. They made the decision to go back to Tibet, fulling knowing what this meant: spending another month crossing back over those same mountains into Tibet, where Chinese police would most likely arrest them and put them in jail for 3 to 6 months. They might be tortured, they might not be. But at least they could see their friends and families again.

David is from Chad. His country has been in war on and off for ten years. After graduating from high school, he went to university in Cameroon. He also spent some time in Nigeria learning English. He decided to further his studies in France, where he was soon met with a visa nightmare. Because his country is at war on and off, he is constantly waiting it out, constantly wondering if he will be sent back home the minute peace breaks through for a few hopeful days. In the meantime, he is considered an “asylum seeker.” What he really wants is “refugee” status. At least this way, he will be on the fast track for citizenship or a more stable visa status. As things are now, he has to renew his asylum seeker visa every three months. He can never settle and never feel like he is moving in a linear, forward direction. The word “precarious” comes to mind. So does the word “stress.”

I read an article in Le Monde the other day about two Afghan men who decided to escape their war-torn country to come to London. Thus began a heroic, 6-month adventure halfway across the world. One man sold his taxi upon leaving in order to have enough money for the trip, the other quit his job. Both men spent approximately 17,000 dollars to pay traffickers to help them cross the borders of Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, then France. They were Calais, on their way to London (and thinking they were scot free) when they were found by police while sleeping in an abandoned house. The French police told them they’d be alright, that they wouldn’t be kicked out of the country. But upon arriving at the airport (even under the police’s pretext that they would be allowed to stay) they were hustled onto an airplane and sent home to Kabul. Once there, they found that their families had rejected them for having left. Their jobs were gone, they had no home and they now owed traffickers nearly 20,000 dollars each. They did all of this for freedom, making it to the last leg of their trip before meeting an untimely end in France, a country they trusted to provide them safe harbor. As one of the men mentioned to police, they were simply passing through France, not staying indefinitely. So why did the French police expel them?

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And my own story. I worked in Marseille from 2003-2005 as an English assistant. I came back to France in 2008 as a “jeune professionnelle,” which can be loosely translated into “paid intern.” I intended to stay for 18 months and hoped to stay for longer. I worked for a newspaper in Southwest France, run by a vicious alcoholic who polluted our work environment on a daily basis. Over half of the staff were clinically depressed. Eight months later, the business went under and we all got laid off. I found myself in a foreign country, alone and unemployed. When it came time to renew my visa, I did so as an unemployed citizen. My renewal was accepted. I was paid monthly installments to keep me afloat while I looked for a new job. After 8 months of searching, I found a teaching job in Paris. My visa has always said “salariee,” which means I am allowed to work in any capacity in France. However, when I tried to renew my visa this past February, it was rejected, on the grounds that as a “jeune professionnelle,” I had overstayed my welcome in France and had worked illegally for my current employer. I now have one month to do an appeal of the DDTE’s decision and if it doesn’t go through, I am expected to drop my entire life and jump on a plane back home. After a total of four years here, I speak the language almost perfectly, I pay French taxes, I have a full-time CDI (timeline undetermined) work contract – I don’t ask anyone for anything. Yet I am being told to leave.

I tell these stories because when we watch the nightly news or pick up a newspaper, we rarely hear the personal stories behind immigration. All we hear are the talking heads and their impressions of current laws. Perhaps if these same lawmakers took a few moments to listen to what is really going on around them, none of us would be in this mess. I cross our fingers for all of us.

Dredging race out of the closet

It didn’t take long for the “Obama effect” to hit France. Just two days after the first African-American was elected president, the French are jumping on the chance to assess their own political makeup. The covers of nearly all the major newspapers this morning addressed the issue, with one poignant message on the cover of Libération: “The election of a bi-racial man to the White House puts in motion the debate about the weak presence of minorities among the French elite.”

While most admit that it’s not the color of Obama’s skin that counts but the words exiting his mouth, no one can ignore the magnitude of his election as a minority. Surely not in France, where Africans from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad pack boats headed for the harbours of Marseille, or hop ships to Spain and drive all the way through the country to jump the border into France. In a country with so many Africans, one would assume that several must hold positions of power.

Au contraire, mon frère. The National Assembly holds just one minority in the name of Deputy George Pau-Langevin. Then there is the Minister of Justice Rachida Dati, Human Rights Secretary of State Rama Yade, and Urban Policies Secretary of State Fadela Amara. Many French agree that since Nicolas Sarkozy became president, his version of “affirmative action” is what got several of these candidates their positions. “Not that they’re not competent,” adds my French co-worker as a buffer.

While the French seem inspired by America’s step towards racial equality, no one seems too optimistic about their country’s future. My English co-worker, who has lived in France for twenty years, said this morning, “There’s no way it will happen in France.” “Ever?” I reply. “No, I really don’t think so. I can’t see it.”

I try to cajole her into believing in the dream. “Surely if America can do it, so can France. I mean, we just had slavery a few decades ago,” I say. She smirks and doesn’t seem convinced. Neither is the first black candidate to run for president of France in 2002, the now Deputy of Guyane Christiane Taubira. “Neither of the two major parties, not the UMP or the PS, are capable today of accomplishing what the Democratic party did in the United States,” she noted in a November 6 article in Sud Ouest’s Bergerac/Sarlat edition.

What are the French to do? Hide behind their cafés and berets? In French-like fashion, I doubt it. While America has grown increasingly more apathetic (withholding this recent US election process), the French have always remained spirited. Just today, union workers for the national train system, the SNCF, went on strike to protest a project that would modify work hours for conductors. With 50% fewer trains rolling out today, protesters hope their calls for change will make a difference. And what about all those passengers who will be stuck taking the bus instead? Well, people will just have to get over it.

In France, it is understood that if you don’t agree with something, you’ve got to make your voice heard. Protests pop up in this country as often as chains of McDonalds do in the U.S. While not all protests produce a successful outcome, the national exposure of their plight is a start. And it certainly can’t hurt.

I expect Obama’s election will inspire a new fervor in France. Come election time – for no matter which office – the question of race will not only for the first time be present in political conversation, but also debatable. The editor of Sud Ouest wrote on November 6, “Obama’s election makes our country appear much older and more closed off than Bush’s presidency ever accomplished. He is someone Europe and the Old World have always dreamed about. He has put an end to all the nightmares of injustice against black people and to those who mistreat others.”

Obama’s election forces France, Europe and all the world’s countries to deal with their race and immigration issues, regardless of how much they would like to ignore them. Because of one man, race is finally coming out of the closet. And I expect a protest or two.

France’s immigration crisis: a nation of wasted talent

After seven months in Périgueux’s cultural void, I finally found an Arabic class. Upon answering an online ad by a Moroccan woman, I found myself in a stranger’s living room, sucking down apple juice and sweet honied cakes, and learning the first three letters of the Arabic alphabet.

Instead of absorbing the sounds “ba,” “ti,” or “koo,” I took home with me something much more tangible and disturbing. My teacher lives in an HLM, which are like the American projects, only instead of row houses or half-collapsing shanties, the French ghettos are set up in a series of barren apartments. But unlike those found on the seafront or even in the middle of the city, these complexes are pushed to the outskirts of town, the eyesores far out of view from middle-class citizens. They’re gray and dingy, with streaks of black streaming down from the outside windows, as if someone had set fire to them long ago, aired them out for a bit and then deemed them habitable. Grass is available, that is if you’re comfortable with generous amounts of weeds, litter and dog poop.

The inside is not much better. Tiny kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms cram two, three, or even six people into any remaining space where a body can fit. Balconies are a luxury, as are windows, and don’t expect an elevator to take you up those four flights of stairs.

After my hour lesson, my teacher walks me out. She tells me that the electrical system in the building was installed back in 1958 and has not been dealt with since. If that’s not a grand scale, life-threatening fire, I don’t know what is. I ask her who pays for cleaning up the inside of the building, which is streaked with graffiti, marks of dirt on the walls and dust floating about everywhere. “The state,” she says, looking disgusted. I take this small conversational window to admit my own disgust with the French government and how no one’s doing anything about these walls, these hallways, these people.

My teacher tells me she has her masters in education and used to be an Arabic teacher in Morocco. But since coming to France ten years ago, where she still remains without legal citizenship or working papers, she has not been able to find work. In order to get said papers, she must live in France for five years as a resident. But since she is not considered legal, her ten years in the country can’t be verified and therefore, don’t count for jack squat.

Subsequently, her two children are not legal either, making applying for jobs nearly impossible. Her oldest son is 23 and her youngest is 18. She tells me they’re both in school, but I wonder, what will they do? Her oldest will graduate soon from law school in a few years but will he be able to find work? Will Sarko have figured out by then that we can’t just follow Bush’s lead and “send them all back to where they came from?”

More importantly, when is France going to figure out that ignoring the problem doesn’t solve it? After living in Marseille for two years, this urban ghetto in Perigueux is nothing. In Marseille, the HLMs are pushed even further out, 45 minutes from the town center with limited bus access and nowhere to buy groceries. As a result, the kids go to the local school, which is at the bottom of the stairs of their building, and play football in a parking lot filled with broken glass and littered garbage. Why? Because “the state” is turning a blind eye. The French government seems to think that putting people up behind four walls is enough of a gift that they virtually wash their hands clean of these new residents, mostly impoverished, mostly immigrants and mostly without resources.

What disturbs me perhaps more is my teacher’s story of being completely qualified to do a job but unable to get hired. How can a woman with a masters degree in education, in a language that is quickly becoming France’s second, be ignored to the point of near destitution?

Although mysterious, her story is not uncommon. I have other friends in France who have moved here, living for years without success in acquiring working papers, residency or citizenship. One friend in Marseille has been diligently trying to get his family here from Zambia for over five years, only to be rejected every time. A full-time architect who has benefitted from the French education system, he has now spent more than four years working for this country. Yet, with no explanation and no promise of his chances going up, each year he receives another rejected application. All he can do is make a passing comment about racism in France before going about his life and work. For if he cannot succeed himself, he surely won’t have the means to get his family here for a better life.

Immigration is the only topic I refuse to discuss with a French person, for I know that I can never understand and can never be understood either. Being born into a nation based on immigration (and lacking a certain palpable culture), how could I dare debate a person who has grown up with clear cultural mores, instilled in them since birth? In America, we may not embrace immigrants with open arms, but we have enough social services professionals awaiting their arrival to get them upright and going down the right track towards citizenship. At a minimum, we have a true interest in where they’ve come from, what they’re doing here and their hopes and dreams. In France, the arms are significantly more aggressive and seek to harm not to heal. Even regular French citizens seem to have a distaste for their country’s immigrant population. The motto seems to be, “put the immigrants far away until we can’t see them… and maybe they’ll go away.”

If a tiny town like Perigueux can inflict such a degrading situation on the nation’s poorest, I can only imagine Paris or Bordeaux. The French government needs to take a swift step back from Bush’s lead, stop thinking about what France used to be, and start realizing – and accepting – what France has now become. If not, the country will become saturated with even more broken hearts and wasted talent. And no amount of dingy high rise HLMs are going to hide the problem.