World Refugee Day – DIY Humanitarianism in Paris

World Refugee Week provides an opportunity to reflect on and highlight the diverse challenges facing displaced peoples. In this piece, Tatiana Thieme (UCL-Geography) draws on her project’s research with refugees and asylum seekers living in the city of Paris. The everyday (and every-night) challenges faced by marginalised refugees and asylum seekers – stemming from the limits of municipal authorities to meet needs, and the restrictions placed on migrants by hostile immigration policies – leads to long-term precarity for many. However, against this backdrop comes evidence of what Tatiana refers to as ‘DIY humanitarianism’, where refugees, asylum seekers and humanitarian organisations with limited resources engage in everyday acts of solidarity and support. Nevertheless, Tatiana asks whether this DIY Humanitarianism can be sustainable in light of increasing urban austerity and the absence of any meaningful rights to the city. The piece reflects on realities, dynamics and challenges that characterise cities hosting refugees across Europe, many of which also resonate with the experiences and responses the Refugee Hosts project is documenting across cities and urban camps in the Middle East.

World Refugee Day – DIY Humanitarianism in Paris 

By Tatiana Thieme, University College London

On June 20th the United Nations, along with over 100 countries, recognised and marked World Refugee Day. According to the UNHCR, in 2018 there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people around the world, including 25.4 million refugees. The ongoing civil war in Syria, coupled with other conflicts across the Middle East and Africa, has been the catalyst for what is regarded as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two. Although 84% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries across the global South, since 2015 over 1.5 million refugees have made their way to Europe through a variety of precarious land and sea routes. While, proportionally, the number of refugees in Europe pales in comparison with other host countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Kenya, the “Temporary Migrants or New Europeans?” project draws attention to the form that the ‘refugee crisis’ has taken in Europe and particularly how it plays out in urban environments. Refugees in Europe may pass through registration offices, and spend months – if not years – in refugee camps (including the infamous Calais ‘Jungle‘), or be caught interminably in detention centres. While asylum claims are either approved or denied, the places and spaces of humanitarian provision where everyday refugee politics are dramatized are not necessarily within enclosed camps and centres, but rather within the city itself.

In the Global South, informal economies and informal settlements have been integral to 21st century urbanism, where cities offer concentrations of opportunity while the rate and form of urbanization outpaces public sector supply and municipal capacities. In the Global North, makeshift urbanism tends to disturb European bourgeois sensibilities, and yet, as Julien Damon argues in Un Monde de Bidonvilles, European cities are facing a return of slum urbanism as the numbers of people on the streets without services are forced to improvise and “make do”. With this process in play, Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the right to the city conceptualized 50 years ago takes on new meaning and raises urgent questions regarding urban capacities to provide essential services for all city dwellers, including the temporary or ‘just visiting’. As refugees set up makeshift settlements or precarious dwellings in various corners of the city, under bridges and in parks, the interstices of urban spaces are being remade and claimed by those waiting or unable to access housing and associated forms of urban provisioning including water and sanitation, let alone opportunities to work and inhabit the city in ‘livable’ ways.

In Paris, recent media portrayals have tended to focus on the closure of the Centre de Premier Acceuil (what was known as “the bubble”) at Porte de la Chapelle, the hotly contested new immigration legislation, and the regular evacuations of makeshift dwellings across the city since 2015. As the thousands of people currently sleeping rough on the streets of Paris raise critical questions about the city’s capacity to accommodate new arrivals and those caught in asylum limbo, myriad civil society associations have mobilized to address the lack of infrastructure and basic services available to street dwellers. These stories have received less attention, and yet they reveal (as the Refugee Hosts project is also documenting through its research across the Middle East) that service provision to refugees arise from countless neighbourhood-based collectives and under-funded humanitarian organisations that roam the streets to reach the most vulnerable refugees (women, children and minors) or setting up ad hoc distribution stations to provide food, clothing, blankets and tents for those sleeping rough. In addition to basic sustenance, other services include legal aid, language lessons, and street-based medical council. Together, this has created a fragmented but vibrant off-grid Do It Yourself (DIY) humanitarian sector in the absence of more comprehensive state/municipal provisioning.

Against the backdrop of protracted austerity politics in Europe, an increasing number of economically vulnerable people across Europe face housing shortages, labour insecurity and cut-backs in support services and welfare programmes of all sorts. So, while focus shifts to those seeking refuge, efforts to find public sanitation facilities, showers and shelter, let alone ways of making a living, become increasingly difficult for all living in precarious conditions. And so the streets have become the point of convergence where a range of vulnerable groups co-exist, and where DIY humanitarians themselves may often be under-employed or struggling to pay their next bills. In the 18th arrondissement, Porte de la Chapelle has continued to serve as a hub for various forms of DIY humanitarian assistance. Refugees gather under Boulevard Ney alongside other homeless precariats for daily breakfast distributions provided by the grassroots organisation Migrants Solidarité Wilson, and access to mobile medical care from Médecins du Monde. Walk across this neighbourhood at 2 am and refugees huddle in ad hoc dwellings alongside other precarious night economies occupying their own corners of the sidewalks until dawn. The atmosphere can teeter quickly from moments of solidarity and shared provisioning to turf battles amongst both those living on the street and those purporting to offer care. And, increasingly, a series of off-grid experiments including solar showers and portable toilets persist in the face of the seeming impossibility to process asylum claims fast enough and provide shelter for all.

This moment in Paris and other EU cities puts in sharp relief the confluence of refugee crises, austerity politics and rising overlapping precarities amongst diverse vulnerable groups. European cities are still unsure about how to collectively acknowledge and coordinate the constellation of actors who work at different scales to ensure emergency and long-term provision alike. Instead, we are stuck in debates concerning asylum and migration laws, detention and deportation. We remain fixed on polarizing debates and finger-pointing about the roles of the municipality, the government, and new legislation. As we debate the Spider-Man heroics of Mamoudou Gassama required for refugees to ‘deserve’ their papers and their skills recognized, World Refugee Day is also a time to look around and recognise the quotidian labour and acts of courage that go into the day of a refugee on the streets of Paris and other European cities.

It is also a day to better acknowledge how refugees’ needs are actually being met in Europe’s cities, recognizing the myriad actors doing their best, often on shoe-string budgets, to address provisioning within their own capacities. And yet, we have to ask to what extent this form of DIY humanitarianism is sustainable, or whether it risks becoming palliative in the face of increasingly stringent immigration policies, and the city’s incapacity to provide basic services for refugees in waiting. From where will refugees navigating the streets and countless volunteers working on their behalf draw reserves of energy, commitment and labour in the face of continued evactuations? World Refugee Week is also a stark reminder that the everyday micro-politics of accessing basic services in the city as a resident of the street is embedded in the wider structures of urban austerity and uncertainty that make accessing urban infrastructures difficult for precarious urban residents of all types – refugees, those without a fixed domicile, and the working poor.

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Tatiana Thieme is a lecturer in Georaphy at University College London, currently working on a research project titled “Temporary migrants or new European citizens? Geographies of integration and responses between camps and the city” in collaboration with Eszter Kovacs and Kavita Ramakrishnan. The project is supported by the British Academy’s Tackling the UK’s International Challenges Programme.

Featured image: A group of refugees gather under a bridge in Canal St. Denis, Porte de la Villette, Paris. (c) Toby Smith, Feb. 2018. 

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If you have found this piece of interest, you may consider reading these additional items on the Refugee Hosts website, or listening to soundscapes recorded in cities and urban camps including Athens, Beirut, Baddawi and Istanbul here:

Carpi, E. (2018) “Accessing Urban-Humanitarian Encounters in Northern Lebanon “

Davies, D. (2017) “Hard Infrastructures, Diseased Bodies

Davies, D. (2017) “Urban Warfare, Resilience and Resistance: Leila Abdelrazaq’s Baddawi (2015)”

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “Local Communities and Contextualising the Localisation of Aid Agenda

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2016) “Refugees Hosting Refugees”

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) “Refugee Neighbours and Hostipitality”

Grewal, Z. (2018) “A Successful Alternative to Refugee Camps: A Greek Squat Shames the EU and NGOs” 

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey”

Ramakrishnan, K. and Stavinoha, L. (2017) “Volunteers and Solidarity in Europe’s Refugee Response”

Zbeidy, D. (2017) “Widowhood, Displacement and Friendship in Jordan”

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