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26 October 2015updated 07 Dec 2015 11:46am

How and why central Paris shut down its last major refugee camp

The disused Jean-Quarré school in Northern Paris, which became a key refugee camp housing over 1,300 people in the summer, has been closed.

By Abigail Gallagher

The derelict building of the Jean-Quarré school in Northern Paris, which became a key refugee camp housing over 1,300 people in the summer, has been closed during a huge eviction process ordered by the Paris administrative court.

The evacuation began at 5.30am on Friday 23 October when police entered the grounds and began directing the inhabitants towards the 26 buses waiting to take them to various areas of accommodation in Paris and elsewhere in France. By 9.30am, all roads surrounding the building had been blocked by at least 500 officers wearing full riot protection. One refugee, Ibrahim, discussed his shock at the volume of people exiting the building; despite living there for one month he had no idea this many people were cohabiting inside.

The Jean-Quarré camp was judged unfit for human inhabitation in September following health and safety concerns. The grey, concrete building is four stories high and situated among various high-rise residential buildings. The playground became a meeting place where French lessons were delivered by local volunteers. The benches around the perimeter hosted numerous groups endeavouring to help the camp residents, who originated from a variety of countries including Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Pakistan and many others. It was a melting pot of individuals who survived the perilous journey across the Mediterranean and had mostly travelled through Europe on foot.

Tensions within the camp were inevitable and were usually the result of a perceived lack of respect. There was also the issue of newcomers; people arrived daily at the camp, each holding a plastic carrier bag containing all their worldly possessions. These new arrivals sometimes unknowingly violated unspoken rules of the camp. Some expected a bed inside, or a mattress for themselves, not aware that things were arranged in a type of organised chaos in which they were at the bottom of a ladder others had been climbing for days, weeks or months.

During a visit I made to the camp earlier this month, such tensions resulted in serious unrest; the usual games of football or basketball had been replaced with a riot-like scene. Rocks the size of house bricks were launched from the upper windows of the building, those on the ground attempted to dodge the objects raining down upon them, quickly retaliating by throwing back whatever objects were to hand. Police, unwelcome and mistrusted by the refugees, entered the grounds once the trouble had ended. They asked if any injured needed attention before leaving.

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Despite the squalid conditions of the camp, it had become something of a home for many exhausted refugees who were beginning to feel part of a community again. Bakhit Yagoub Abaker, for example, left Darfur, Sudan following the brutal slaughter of his father, elder brother and thousands of others by the Janjaweed militias operating with impunity in Darfur. Bakhit arrived in Italy one month ago, as one of 450 people crammed onto an overcrowded boat, before being violently forced to provide his fingerprints by officials. He subsequently managed to walk from there to Paris, where he was relieved to find a community of around 400 fellow Sudanese refugees at the Jean-Quarré camp, following an arduous and isolated journey.

Subsequently, when the eviction began, some were reluctant to leave; feeling apprehensive about the unknown nature of their destination and whether it would in fact be worse than the current conditions. The closing of the camp has been reported as peaceful, however, one refugee I speak to who asked not to be named claims that although their treatment by uniformed police officers was “OK”, their plain-clothed counterparts were decidedly more aggressive, “grabbing and shoving” some refugees.

These desperate individuals have been assured there are 900 accommodation places ready to receive them. However, as the buses left the area there was severe confusion as to their destination, with numerous worrying rumours circulating. Some are thought to be being relocated as far from their new home as Marseille or Lyon, others only a few miles away in Belleville.

Despite earlier pledges to the refugees to rehouse them, there were allegedly at least 100 people unhoused by the end of the operation, many of whom I’ve seen sleeping in parks or streets near the Jean-Quarré site. Wherever these people now find themselves, what is clear is that they are not welcome in central Paris – not on this scale, at least.

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