Paris in summer was anything but sweet for this Alverno prof, who witnessed police crackdowns on migrants and wants the world to know about it.

As a historian of France, I frequently spend time in Paris doing archival research. But the summer of 2016 was different; having seen the heartrending images from the previous fall of the so-called “migrant crisis,” I planned to work with forced migrants living in makeshift camps there, distributing food and clothing, teaching English and French classes, helping translate official documents, perhaps constructing and repairing rudimentary shelters. Such work would allow me to better understand the dynamics of migrant life and the routine of relief work, to see what the needs were and how nonprofits, government agencies and others try to meet them. I could then incorporate those experiences into my Alverno College classes on refugees and migration.

Two days after my arrival in Paris, however, I turned on the radio at breakfast to hear that hundreds of the notorious CRS riot police were clearing the largest camp beneath elevated tracks at the Jaurès metro station, loading some 2,000 migrants onto buses and throwing away their tents, sleeping bags and other possessions. I headed to the camp, furiously texting my contacts. “I can’t get through the police cordon. What now?” I texted, unable to help the migrants I could now see huddled under the tracks a short distance away. “Just take pictures and videos,” came the answer back. “Watch the CRS to make sure they don’t get rough.” I found a good vantage point to watch the police turning people away and preventing migrants from leaving. There had been a couple of incidents earlier in the day, but for the most part, the operation went smoothly; the migrants knew they could do nothing, and promises of accommodation kept them compliant. Occasionally a bus or two full of migrants would depart for impromptu hostels on the outskirts of Paris, followed by a garbage truck full of their possessions, headed to the incinerator. More than one Parisian bystander drew parallels to French police’s wartime collaboration with the Nazis in rounding up Jews.

Over the next few days, the camp was gradually re-established, by those who had returned to continue pursuing their asylum applications at the nearby asylum office and to find friends they had been separated from, as well as by perhaps a hundred new arrivals daily. I spent my days helping as I could – advising asylum-seekers on filing forms, assisting a group of doctors and nurses who offered medical help on their days off, and distributing food, blankets and clothing. One group of volunteers I worked with focused on “unaccompanied minors” – people (overwhelmingly boys) under 18 who were traveling without adult family members, who receive priority treatment through special centers. I accompanied three such kids, aged 16 and 17, from Ethiopia and Eritrea, to a nearby center. On the crowded metro ride there, I showed them how to fold down the one available flip-up seat. One of them politely insisted, in faltering English, that I take it “because you’re old.” I protested that, although I was not young like them, neither was I old. We chuckled, and they told me a little about their dangerous journey together across the Mediterranean, through Italy and up through France. I left them with the center staff, thinking of my own son, at that moment safe with his grandparents in England.

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But the failings of the system were clear the next day, when I saw the two Ethiopian boys back at the Jaurès camp. When I drew this to the attention of the volunteers who had asked me to take the boys in the day before, they explained that it is often difficult for kids to prove their minor status, and the cheap hotels the service uses for housing are often filthy, bug-infested and sometimes staffed by racist or violent individuals. On my last day in Paris, we were called to the center to document an assault on one of the children by a member of the center’s own security staff. It was no surprise that even some kids who could prove their status refused to leave their over-18 friends on the sidewalks.

The big raid on my first day was followed by ongoing police harassment of the migrants. CRS riot police, often in body armor, would assemble daily near the camp and move the migrants – out from under the subway tracks, off the sidewalk, 50 yards down the street. There seemed to be no logic or consistency. Unlike that first raid, there were no buses, no accommodations out in the suburbs, just “Move along!” Occasionally police would load a few of them into vans or buses, and those migrants would reappear a few hours later holding papers ordering them to leave France. Their asylum status seemed irrelevant to such judgments. It became clear that police policy was to harass the migrants until they gave up.

Ten days after the initial raid, after a long day distributing food and clothing, a few other volunteers and I were about to head home when our phones erupted with word of large numbers of police gathering at one end of the “Sudanese” camp, a short distance from the main camp at Jaurès. We rushed over to find dozens of CRS in full riot gear lined up opposite an agitated crowd of mostly Sudanese and Somali migrants in the paved median of a boulevard. As we arrived, a whistle blew, and the line of CRS advanced at walking pace, beating their batons on their shields, pushing the migrants back. Then they stopped, withdrew fifteen yards, and waited five minutes before the whistle blew again. This time, they ran at the crowd, running over several migrants who could not turn and run fast enough. The brutal process was repeated half a dozen times, pushing the crowd of migrants a few hundred yards up the boulevard and leaving several of them lying in the gutter. The police held the crowd of migrants back while sanitation crews gathered up the belongings left behind in the panic, then left as a light drizzle began to fall. It seemed that the operation had been for no purpose at all, except to ensure that the migrants’ night would be cold, damp and sleepless.

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What I saw was only one small facet of the so-called “migrant crisis.” Tens of thousands more migrants are in camps elsewhere throughout Europe; millions more are in Jordan, Turkey, Kenya, Iran and Pakistan. In Paris, CRS riot police are still harassing migrants with raids intended to intimidate them. Paris is opening two shelters on the edges of the city, but their approximately 750 beds will fall far short of estimates of several thousand still sleeping in the streets around Jaurès, and on couches and floors donated by friendly Parisians. In addition, at press time French authorities were closing the massive Jungle camp at Calais and redistributing its 9,000 residents to centers across France. And migrants continue to arrive from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Eritrea, Ethiopia and elsewhere, fleeing war, famine and persecution.

France, like the United States, prides itself on its defense of human rights and its tradition of welcoming the downtrodden, but in both countries, anti-migrant fervor is on the rise among the public and governments of both countries. Back in Milwaukee, I hope I can convey to my students at Alverno that, instead of fearing migrants, we should seek to help them. Above all, I want them to bear in mind the words of British-Somali refugee poet Warsan Shire:

     No one leaves home
     Unless home is the mouth of a shark
     You only run for the border
     When you see the whole city running as well ◆

‘Street Drama’ appears in the December 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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