Migration Crisis, Dismantling A Makeshift Tent City In Paris

Europe's immigration crisis has also been gathering under a Metro overpass in the French capital. Officials have now acted, but that hardly means there is a solution.

Tent encampment at La Chapelle
Tent encampment at La Chapelle
Maryline Baumard

PARIS — To kill time last week, Ahmad Din was throwing old bread crusts to the pigeons. The birds barely start pecking when the rumble of this Metro overpass sends them flying away. Below the above-ground Metro station La Chapelle in northern Paris, time passes to these sounds of trains coming and going, as the young Ethiopian sat on the edge of a mattress sticking out of his tent.

On Tuesday, police began to follow through on city plans to dismantle this makeshift migrant camp that some of them have called home for months. The humanitarian organization known as France terre d’asile (France land of exile) made a list last month to count the number of migrants who were camped out together at La Chapelle. There were 380 that day.

But the numbers have been fluid since last summer when tents began to appear: some of the undocumented migrants are too suspicious to accept interviews, while others set off towards Germany or Sweden, or the UK, via the coastal city of Calais in northern France. For the French capital, this Metro underpass has become a semi-hidden symbol of Europe's exploding migration crisis.

Din has international refugee status, which was granted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Libya. This precious paper, which he kept under his mattress in a file hidden in a plastic bag, will be converted into French asylum protection.

"Disgraceful reception"

In a neighboring gymnasium, the migrants are received one by one. Half the hall is occupied by agents of the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA). Kady is one of them. She has been interviewing migrants since the morning. "This first brief discussion is a way to see if a person is particularly vulnerable," the young woman says.

Even OFPRA's director general Pascal Brice is here, his suit and tie a stark contrast with most of the others here. "We will then hear all the asylum seekers in our offices," he says. "But this first meeting on site helps us to know which cases we will be able to handle rapidly."

People of certain nationalities, such as Eritreans or Syrians, all receive refugee status, so their cases are handled quickly. But on this recent day, cases of Ethiopians and Sudanese are also heard.

While Kady and a dozen other OFPRA staffers receive the migrants, six officers of the department for foreigners of the Paris police set up appointments and question the others, so-called "economic migrants."

Dominique Bordin, the homeless task force manager for the Paris city council, says it's important to know how many asylum seekers there are so that they can be given suitable accommodation. Places must also be found for a number of women with very young children. Bordin says the migrant situation has gotten more difficult by the day.

Pierre Henry, head of the aid organization, says it is shameful the way France has ignored those in need who were camping out at La Chapelle. "I've been alerting public authorities on the state of this camp for five months," he says. "This site reflects all the disgrace of our reception policy."

Since February, the unofficial migrant camp has received new arrivals who'd originally landed in Lampedusa, or other points in southern Italy. The tent encampment just grew and grew. The city council knew the situation was no longer bearable, but it took months to get the state to promise that a "solution would be offered to all." The first goal was to find a place for each asylum seeker.

Aurélie El-Hassak-Marzorati, deputy manager of Emmaüs Solidarité, will keep a watchful eye on these government guarantees. Her teams followed the families all winter, alerted emergency services and found solutions with the city council. The young woman is now worried about what will follow. "Thinking the migrants will go on their way because the La Chapelle camp is closed down is delusional," she says. "Let's try to consider a reception worthy of a country that believes in human rights."

But even with the La Chapelle site cleared, there is another migrant encampment across the city near the “Cité de la Mode" on the banks of the Seine. Now, an eviction notice has also been served to the 300 campers there.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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