Popular song has always waxed lyrical about Paris in the spring. But I was there last week and I can report that it is not so romantic if you are a homeless refugee. Because bulldozing the Calais "jungle" did not solve the challenge of migrants on the move. It merely displaced it.
There have always been refugees and asylum seekers sleeping rough in the streets of Paris. But closing the Calais camp, with its ten thousand inhabitants, has sharply increased the numbers in Paris. I was fortunate enough to be shown round Paris refugee encampments by volunteers working there, including Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais and an amazing man working for an organisation called Utopia 56. He explained disarmingly that he wasn't a lawyer or a social worker. Instead his area of expertise was organising campsites at music festivals. In his festival days he would have thousands of volunteers working for him. So organising refugee campsites were not that much of a stretch.
First they showed me an official refugee site. It housed about four hundred refugees who were being processed there to apply for refugee status in France. It was clean and orderly, particularly in comparison to the Calais jungle. The refugees were mostly male, although there was also a small group of families. They sleep under cover, they get three meals a day, a change of clothes, the facilities to charge their phones and there are even washing machines available. But there was a shadow of fear even over this relatively exemplary facility. Would-be inmates queue daily to enter and register. But gangsters are on the prowl outside. They demand money to be allowed to join the queue. And, if you have the temerity to join the queue anyway, you get beaten up. Their activities have been reported to the police, but nothing happens.
The problem with the official facility is that, in order to get in you have to be a refugee. But the "Dublin" system of determining which EU member is responsible for processing a refugee's asylum claim states that the claim should be made in the first EU state the refugee enters. So refugees wishing to claim asylum in France- but who have been fingerprinted in Italy or Greece- are frightened of going to official centres because they are frightened of being sent back to those countries. So they camp in the street in Paris, hoping against hope that some voluntary organisation will help them with their asylum claim. They have been joined by thousands of people who were dispersed from Calais, but were denied official refugee status. So these people have drifted back to Northern France and Paris.
Conditions in the unofficial Paris encampment are dreadful. In some aspects even worse than the conditions were in the Calais jungle. The refugees put up tents under motorways and in places where they hope the police won't find them. There is no running water, no sanitation, and no services of any kind, no cooking, heating or washing facilities and many of the inhabitants of the unofficial encampments have diseases like scabies. They are entirely at the mercy of the police who, when they can find them, chase them away and beat them up. There are similar mini-encampments are springing up in Calais. In January of this year Medecin Sans Frontieres (MSF) mobile clinics began operations in Paris. In just eight days they reported: treating eight refugees who were close to hypothermia, their concern about aggression and harassment by the police and witnessing the Paris police confiscating blankets from refugees.
Another concern is the fate of over a thousand young refugees who remain scattered around France. One thousand nine hundred young people were among the refugees bussed out of the Calais jungle in October last year. British MPs were told that they would be sent to special children's centres. But Clare Moseley reports "Many of the centres did not find out they were receiving minors until the night before they arrived and no special facilities were provided. There was one centre where the young people were housed in a shelter for French homeless adults, some of whom had alcohol and drug problems." Due to public pressure the UK government did agree to accept more refugee children from Europe. British Home office officials visited the children in French centres after the demolition of Calais to determine whether they were eligible to come to Britain either under family reunification provisions or under the "Dubs amendment" which applied to children who were particularly vulnerable. The public expected thousands of refugee children to enter Britain by this route. But the government closed the scheme in December having accepted a few hundred children. But, since the closure of the Dubs scheme, there has been a surge in child refugees returning to Calais and Dunkirk. There they are vulnerable to people traffickers and sexual exploitation.
Child refugees have been emphatically failed by the British government. Wanting to help children is a worthy impulse. But in the end we have to engage with, both the children and, their families. Waves of migrants are moving across Western Europe driven by war and famine. So far European governments have tried to deal with the problem with barbed wire, walls, bulldozing encampments and criminalising the migrants themselves. There has to be a better and more sustainable response. We need much more genuine co-operation between European governments, whether they are in Schengen or not. Sadly, with Britain leaving the EU, better co-operation seems further away than ever. Above all we need more safe and legal routes for migrants.
Paris in the spring is lovely, with the Cathedral of Notre Dame framed by trees in blossom. But very close to the city centre are desperate refugees in appalling conditions. The test of European civilization is not just the parks, the gardens, the architecture and the paintings. Surely the real test of our civilisation is how we treat vulnerable refugees?
Diane Abbott is the shadow home secretary and Labour MP for Hackney NorthSuggest a correction