Mission COVID19 Emergency Shelter
April 6, 2020
This is being written less than 24 hours after a mission with fellow ADJIE volunteers to get a group of unaccompanied minors urgent housing during the COVID19 pandemic that is sweeping through Paris, France, Europe, and the rest of the world. There are currently more than 300 homeless unaccompanied minors in Paris, and its surrounding area (called Ile de France). Yesterday, we tried to help a few of them find some safety.
We started at Gare du Nord at 14h. Following a tweeted reply from an elected official, alerting us that there is a gym with space designated for unaccompanied minors, several ADJIE volunteers had already contacted young migrants. Most of them have recently arrived in Paris, so calls were made to check in on them and tell them that if they do need housing, they should meet us on Sunday, April 5th in front of the train station in northern Paris. Since the last time they had been contacted, some of the 60 unaccompanied minors on the list we were working from had found unofficial temporary housing. Others are staying in places like squats or slums in faraway suburbs, and with reduced transportation options (part of French confinement measures), they were not able to make it. Some didn’t have any credit in their phones to respond. One young migrant has a foot injury so severe that he can’t walk. We will have to figure out another way to find them shelter later.
As volunteers and young migrants gathered in front of the train station on Sunday afternoon, we all did our best to respect the confinement measures, which require social distancing of at least 1 meter between each person. We stood apart from each other, some even stood across the street, and as quickly as we could, we did a roll call and started dividing people into small groups. There were roughly 15 unaccompanied minors present; one or two volunteers per 2- 3 young migrants, corresponding to French confinement regulations that also state that groups are not allowed to congregate. We spaced out our departures and a couple of volunteers waited to make sure there were no other migrant youth arriving.
Just as the last of us were about to leave, we were approached by three police officers. They immediately started asking us questions. As we answered, they asked us to show them our “travel certificates.” We explained our mission (elected official, following city hall instructions, gym, kids on the street, etc.). We also clarified that the person in charge of that gym had informed us that we have to accompany any unaccompanied minors who need shelter to a police station, so that they can be “approved” for entry into the gym. They only addressed the three ADJIE volunteers, and not the 4- 5 West African teenagers who stood close enough to us to know we were together, but far enough to comply with social distancing requirements. It felt as though we were a kind of buffer for them, perhaps the only “positive” aspect of the experience. As we clarified what we were doing, all three officers looked perplexed and the one who had our travel certificates complained that two of them were not correct because the time we left our homes was not indicated. An officer wearing a mask stepped aside to use his walkie talkie to contact his colleagues. Presumably they wanted to corroborate our story. The entire encounter took roughly 25 minutes, during which time one officer asked us if we know how age assessments for teenage migrants are done (“yes,” we replied, “and professionals and doctors believe they are outdated and inaccurate as there is at least a 2 year margin of error”), and another let us know that they were stressed that day since many Parisians would likely be out enjoying the nice weather, and he also felt the need to make comments such as, “I only see one minor there, among the 4.” Two of us were threatened with 135€ fines, and we were told that their colleagues at the police station were not aware that we were on our way. After re-explaining our mission (and the fact that it was normal that their colleagues were not waiting for us), they finally decided to let us go, with remarks about how even if our reason for being out on a sunny day is noble, we have to respect confinement regulations (helping vulnerable people in need is officially one of the justified reasons for being out). They told us that they were not really sure how we could complete similar missions in the future while respecting these rules, but that we’ll have to figure it out. The current time was marked on two of the travel certificates (good for 1 hour), and we were on our way. One group of 3 left first, followed by the last group of 4 people.
As we descended into the metro, we stayed in touch with our comrades who had already made it to the prefect the police station. Apparently, the officers there were not sure about how to proceed. They referenced a procedure that is done during normal, non-confinement times when the entity (the DEMIE - part of the Red Cross) that is in charge of initially assessing the age of unaccompanied minors (sometimes this happens through interviews and reviewing the documents they have with them, other times it is done with a quick glance) is open and functioning. When this is the case, the prefect helps with these matters after 18h, when the DEMIE is closed. After making a few calls, the officers understood that since the DEMIE is closed during confinement, waiting until 18h was not necessary. Nevertheless, this took time to come to light so while the first groups were waiting for a verdict, the last two groups decided to try our luck at another police station (it was never specified by the police or the gym personnel that one station had to be visited over another). This decision was made after purchasing transportation tickets, waiting longer than usual for line 5 and then waiting on the metro platform for news. While we traveled in the almost-empty metro, we conducted short, efficient interviews with the migrant youth. Normally we would have done this during a proper interview session, where we volunteer, but unfortunately, extreme confinement measures call for extreme circumstances. The place we volunteer has been closed for over three weeks now, and understanding their migratory situations and their state of mind before entering the police station was important.
As we approached the police station, we saw 4 officers outside, what looked to be a completely closed building by the Seine River. Two were on roller blades and two were on bikes. The encounter started off in a friendly manner as we explained why we were there (still standing as far apart as possible). They seemed puzzled until one of them said he thought he knew the procedure we were referring to and explained it to his colleagues. For a brief moment we felt relieved, but then they explained that it wasn’t possible to do that there, as they had changed the function of that police station during confinement and suggested that we try one of two others, in different districts (one of which was where our comrades were patiently waiting). As we were leaving, one of the officers on a bike asked us to repeat the name of the collective we volunteer with and said that he has a friend who also volunteers. He didn’t know the name of the organization, and although his colleagues gave him peculiar looks, the rest of us were happy for the brief moment of solidarity. We all smiled, thanked them and said goodbye.
We decided to join the other 3 groups. It was about a 10-minute walk to that police station. Luckily it was a warm, sunny day and since most of us hadn’t been out, or at least had a chance to walk around in weeks, we were happy that our mission happened to take place under such lovely conditions. As we approached the police station, we saw the other groups outside and quickly got caught up. One or two volunteers were inside, filling out forms that corresponded to the information on the young migrants’ birth certificates, while the rest waited outside. We gathered the documents from the youth in the last two groups, shared squirts of hand sanitizer while reminding them to wash their hands as much as possible (one of us had an extra small bottle that we left with one, with instructions to share with the others), and finished passing out what little snacks and packs of tissues a couple of us had thought to bring. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. We knew we’d be in for a long wait, and that some of the young people with us would be very hungry.
We waited for 2 hours outside the police station. Throughout this time, we continued to receive mixed information from different sources. While waiting, two of us went to scope out the gym, which was nearby. A sweaty but welcoming security guard, who is in charge on the weekends, told us that he had been called about the group we were hoping to safely deliver, but that they only had food and bedding for 4 more young people (we had 12 young migrants with us). We got a quick glimpse of the gym. It looked spacious, there were people playing football, and although gyms are not ideal places for kids to live, particularly during a health crisis, it seemed better than living on the street. Back at the station, a police officer came out to update us and gave us similar information about there not being enough space for all 12 young migrants. Most of the 2 hours we waited without really knowing what would happen, as the updates were sparse. Other officers only addressed us to ask us to spread out more than we already were and to tell the youth who were visibly exhausted, that they couldn’t sit down in front of the station. At one point one of the volunteers overheard officers on break calling her a “bitch” and criticizing us for bringing these young people there in the first place. This, contrasted with the beautiful, cloudless blue sky, the significance of our mission, and the tired but affable young people we were with, made for a memorable Sunday afternoon.
Finally, after hours of walking, explaining, being re-directed, and waiting, we were given an official document that would allow the 12 kids to stay in the gym until the end of the confinement period. We were told to escort them there and that they were under our responsibility. Upon arrival, we were all invited to enter the gym and immediately felt the heat. Some volunteers preferred to wait outside. Once inside, one of us translated for the only young anglophone, while the rules were explained in French to everyone else. The rules were simple really – They are not allowed to leave, for more than 5 minutes at a time. Staying out longer can justify their expulsion from the gym. That’s pretty much it. We were told that a doctor from the Red Cross would come by in the morning to make sure that they were not presenting any COVID19 symptoms (before then, they would be kept apart from the approximately 12 other young people who were present and already declared healthy) and that an educatrice (someone who is paid to do a lot of the work that volunteers like us do – check in, help connect them with health and education services, etc.) would be by to discuss any issues they may have. Some of them looked unsure as we were getting ready to leave. Perhaps after our mission, which took an entire afternoon, as well as phone calls the previous weeks, made them feel like with us they were safe, and they were uncertain if the same could be said for the people working in the almost-empty gym. As we left, we assured them that they could call us if they needed anything, and that this would be better than sleeping on the street. At about 18h we left them in the hopes that they would actually be ok, and already planning for next steps (contacting lawyers, writing to judges, etc.) to ensure their safety, even after the confinement period ends.
Although this post ends here, unfortunately the mission does not. Today one of the 12 kids called a volunteer to say that most of the young migrants we took to the gym were told that they will be ejected. After more phone calls, it looks as though some of them will be able to stay for now and others were not given a choice. The official justification is that during their first evaluation at the DEMIE, they were considered to be over the age of 18. This is something we’ve seen before and most of our work at ADJIE is actually fighting these types of decisions. However, under confinement, we cannot go to ADJIE to work, judicial systems are not functioning normally and overall there are less resources available to kids living on the street. Furthermore, as we ourselves experienced, the authorities who are working during confinement are often misinformed and incapable of implementing an efficient system to keep things quick, safe and simple, so that volunteers and vulnerable people are not forced to spend an entire afternoon out. Nevertheless, we will not give up. Another mission will take place soon to try again with other young migrants and we will keep fighting for the those from the first mission who were denied protection. We are entering week 4 of confinement in France and there are still over 300 unaccompanied minors living on the streets around us, while the majority of the 2,496 gyms in the area are patiently waiting to be used. Fittingly, today it’s raining in Paris.