The Winter’s Tale: Solstice on the Streets of Paris

Photograph Source: Jeanne Menjoulet – CC BY 2.0

Acts of kindness

When you give assistance in any form to a homeless asylum seeker shivering in the freezing European winter, he or she may not be able to repay you there and then. One day though, if you’re lucky enough, you might see the fruit of the smile you created.

Asylum seekers come to France with a thousand and one hopes, and with no way back because of the war and violence that ravages their homeland. Uncertainty grips their hearts with a frigid hand. They can taste the chill of winter on their breath, and feel it penetrating their bones.

New Covid-19 restrictions, not to mention the brutal November 24 police raids, have turned Paris and other French cities into frozen hells for the uprooted (see video below). The raids have shocked civilized people across Europe and around the world, and drawn heavy criticism from the international community.

In this fresh interview Mr. Obaidullah Alam Babakarkhil, speaker and chairman of the French Refugee Council, recounts the events surrounding the police actions of November 17 and 24 this year, and speaks to the plight of asylum seekers seeking refuge in the Fifth Republic.

He tells Ahmad Soheil Ahmadi about

· French police raids on migrant camps

· The illegal rounding-up of asylum seekers

· The impact of new UK asylum laws

· The situation regarding the English Channel

· The work of asylum seeker activists in addressing these issues

· The activities of the French Refugee Council

ASA: From time to time, French police set fire to tents and shelters for refugees in different parts of the country. How do people, social and civil activists, as well as the local and international media, react to these inhumane tragedies?

This is not an occasional incident, but a strategy executed by French municipalities. The municipality is informed that a number of asylum seekers have set up tents and are staying in the area. The mayor informs the district governor and they decide to take the refugees to a shelter. Both in the past and now that Covid-19 is once more spreading, asylum seekers are often transferred to public buildings such as indoor sports facilities. In my opinion, as an asylum activist, there is little difference between staying on the street and in a gymnasium.

These evictions happened most recently on November 17 and 24. The police used excessive violence. The main problem was that along with the asylum seekers, a number of refugees who had been accepted but did not have shelter were also present, and were caught up in the dragnet. As a result, the numbers of evictees were much higher than the police expected.

Fortunately, along with the refugees and asylum seekers, a number of civilians, including settled refugees out to support their compatriots, were present to prepare reports and videos. The crowd was large, and during the police operation a number of asylum seekers set fire to their tents and resisted the police operation. The resulting trouble is the fault of both parties present at the scene. The French police were not prepared and did not have contingencies to transport nearly three thousand people. Incidentally, some homeless people were left behind. We saw that the police did not fire the tents directly, but destroyed the tents after evacuating them.

ASA: What impact have the new British government laws and measures on asylum seekers had on the asylum process in France?

The asylum process is different in each country. The change in the UK government’s procedures has not and will not affect the French government’s asylum process. However, the number of asylum seekers in France is higher than in the past because of the UK’s recent moves. For many asylum seekers, France was never their target; they do not want to settle here but migrate to the UK through France.

Asylum seekers in France have been forced to apply for asylum in the republic since the asylum process in the UK became more difficult. In the French coastal city of Calais, whence asylum seekers used to migrate to the UK, agreements have now been signed to counter the movement of people. The British government has tried to provide the French government with financial resources so that the French government can be present on the scene and deal with the illegal passage of asylum seekers. Although the UK government is spending a lot of money, there are still asylum seekers who risk their lives to cross the English Channel. Unfortunately, some people do not succeed in their goal and lose their lives.

ASA: What is your most positive, heart-warming memory from your years as a refugee activist?

This is an interesting question, but it is difficult to answer because we go out every day to help asylum seekers, and every one of our activities becomes a memory. There are some good memories, but most events are tinged with bitterness. When you see a homeless compatriot on the street torn boots and dirty clothes, it is definitely not pleasant and it is not a good memory. This is because as an Afghan and a refugee, I understand their pain.

However, one memory comes to mind. At the beginning of 2019, the French Refugee Council was formed. On that day we distributed food and health packages to asylum seekers. One asylum seeker, who was shivering in the cold, pleaded ‘O brother, I wish you would bring us a boot.’ I sat in my car and looked at my boots. I took them off and donated them to that refugee. His eyes sparkled as he took off his battered, worn-out shoes, and he was so cold he barely had the strength to thank me. That day passed and I forgot about it.

A year later, I was sitting in a cafe chatting to a friend. A neatly dressed young man came up to me and gave me a boxed pair of boots. Surprised, I asked him what the gift was for, and he replied that he was the same asylum seeker to whom I had given my boots a year earlier. He had never forgotten my gesture. He told me he had finally been accepted into the asylum process, and with the financial support of the French government, had been able to buy me a pair of replacement boots in gratitude. My surprise and joy were so great that this memory will never leave me.

Whenever I go into the community with my colleagues, I always give them one piece of advice: never judge people by their current situation. If our own houses and facilities were taken from us, we would be just like them. All things are in transition. So, I always try to make happy memories for asylum seekers.

MQ: When did you settle in France and what was your motivation for becoming an activist for refugees and immigrants?

Aside from escaping violence, my main purpose in seeking refuge in France was higher education and work. My field of study is human rights and international relations, and I received my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate from a prestigious French university, with human rights as my specialty.

Back then, on my way to university to study, I passed homeless refugees every day, and I was motivated to help, firstly to serve this country and secondly to assist my compatriots and asylum seekers who are here. We were a number of students who, in addition to studying, also started volunteering activities. Every day after university, we met asylum seekers and helped fill out applications and assemble documentation.

After graduation, I had better opportunities to attend conferences and meetings at European level, especially in the European Union. As a result, we were able to help asylum seekers beyond my basic means. Unfortunately, we do not have many organizations in France that serve asylum seekers. After graduation, we expanded the student network so that we could establish the French Refugee Council. We have registered this council with the French government and we are in contact with the United Nations so that we can raise the voice of asylum seekers.

This interview first appeared on Maqshosh

Ahmad Soheil Ahmadi is an editor at Maqshosh.