Some 300 young migrants now squatters in Paris due to reception system overcrowding

The group has taken refuge in an abandoned school while awaiting a determination as to whether they are minors, due to the lack of places in emergency centers

NGO Wilson the Hairdresser
The NGO Wilson the Hairdresser cuts the hair of the residents of the school located on rue Erlanger in Paris.Yann Levy

Standing in the courtyard, Joseph, who prefers not to give his last name, calmly observes what is going on around him. The young Guinean arrived in France after a journey that saw him cross eight different countries and the Mediterranean Sea by boat. For over a week, he has been sleeping alongside some 300 homeless migrants in an abandoned school in the French capital’s wealthy district of Passy. They all claim to be minors, although they have not been officially listed as such by the local authorities. All of them are now awaiting the verdict of the appeal they have lodged with a judge. This process could take up to a year, during which time they will be homeless, due to the saturation of the emergency housing centers.

Several reports drafted by different agencies have highlighted the shortcomings of the country’s reception system in recent years as well as the saturation of the centers to accommodate refugees. This reflects an escalating trend in France. According to data from the Ministry of Justice, in 2022, 14,792 people were classified as unaccompanied minors. In 2021, 11,315, and 9,524 in 2020.

The occupied school, which has been abandoned for four years, is located just four kilometers from the Eiffel Tower. It is in one of the most affluent neighborhoods of the capital, Passy (number 16), next to the Parc des Princes and Roland Garros stadiums, and the Bois de Boulongne, home to almost a dozen foreign embassies. A number of residential buildings surround the school, and occasionally a neighbor will peer over their balcony to see what is going on. “This morning, a woman called the police,” said Zelda Gayet, one of the volunteers assisting them. She also chronicled the night a group arrived in front of the entrance gate with a sign that read: “Free us from immigration.” Meanwhile, other neighbors have come to help, such as a female florist who organized a flower-arranging activity. Against all odds, “it was quite successful,” she joked.

However, there is generally some tension surrounding the place. Volunteers control access to the site and a thick padlock prevents outsiders from coming in. The district’s municipal administration, governed by the Republicans (conservative), is pressing for the expulsion of the migrants. In a statement, it denounced that the premises, which belong to the City Council, are in appalling condition and could constitute a danger to the occupants. The administration was also critical of the fact that most of the migrants “have been classified as adults” and “are here illegally.” The party is headed by Éric Ciotti, who endorses the conspiracy theory of the Great Replacement and opposes the cordon sanitaire with Marine Le Pen’s far-right party.

Undocumented teenagers sleep in an abandoned school, Paris, France
Undocumented teenagers sleep in an abandoned school in Paris.Levy Yann (Yann Levy)

However, the City Council, under the leadership of the socialist Anne Hidalgo, refuses to expel them. Ian Brossat, deputy mayor in charge of housing, emergency accommodation and refugee protection, tweeted that they are asking to be accommodated. “We have also made a proposal to the State for a place that would allow us to provide decent housing for young people who claim to be minors and therefore increase our housing capacity,” he said. Both the City Hall and the police department have failed to respond to this newspaper’s requests for further details.

“There’s my White House,” Joseph, who claims to be 15 years old, said half-smiling. He pointed to one of the few tents pitched in one of the rooms that form the enclosure. The place is damp and unhygienic. Some parts of the roof have fallen down, and the window panes are partially broken. There is nothing resembling the “White House” here. On the floor there are dirty mattresses, blankets, sleeping bags and gold-colored thermal blankets. There is also plenty of cardboard.

“I want to get out of here, I’m constantly stressed, and I don’t sleep well,” said the young man, who used to spend the night on the streets before arriving here. But for the time being, there is no other option. The occupation of the site, which is supported by four NGOs that accompany and defend migrants, started on April 4 and was intended to be temporary. No one knows how long it will endure. The organizations are demanding better reception measures from the authorities and are liaising with them, in the hope of a solution. There is no water or electricity. Only a generator that is turned off at 9 p.m. The City Council, meanwhile, has installed four mobile toilets.

NGOs report that more and more young people are arriving on a daily basis, mainly from West African countries. “The situation is complicated. The pressure from the police has intensified. Every time tents are erected in the same place in Paris, the police show up. This leaves more and more young people wandering around — alone and disoriented,” bemoaned Nicolai Pozner, spokesman for Utopia56. His organization provides legal aid to migrants whose status as minors has been denied and gives them survival materials when they are forced to sleep rough.

Undocumented teenagers sleep in an abandoned school. Paris, France
A resident sweeps one of the classrooms converted into a dormitory. Yann Levy

NGOs claim that more than 50% of the young people have been recognized as minors after their appeal, though there is no official data. According to a 2021 Senate report, 55% of young migrants reporting to the French authorities as unaccompanied minors have been believed to be adults. A report published in February by seven organizations — including Doctors of the World and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) — showed that, depending on the departments of France [equivalent to the provinces], between 50% and 80% of young people are subsequently recognized as minors.

In Joseph’s case, he says that he was asked for his birth certificate, but he did not have it. Since then, he has been trying to contact his mother so that she can send it over. The last time he spoke to his family he was in Italy, where he arrived after spending three days at sea. He departed Tunisia with his cousin, who was traveling on another boat. He has had no word from him. “All we hope for is to have a less hard life,” he said. “I’d like to stay wherever I can,” he continued. Then he added, “My dream is to become a nurse.”

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