Bochra Manai, an urban planner and a refugee originally from Tunisia, focuses on the place of migrants in cities. In certain urban environments, “humanitarian bubbles” are the symbol of their presence and of our indifference.
Paris, Montreal, New York and Grande-Synthe are the theatres of a new reality that seems to scare people and serve as a pretext for discriminatory practices. In the name of public safety and regulation of migrant flows, we forget that refugees are survivors, and their movements are the product of history.
With a walk through the streets of Paris, it’s easy to realize that what people now call “the migrant crisis” is a reality everywhere: in Métro stations, in public spaces, around highway bridges and around public buildings.
What these refugees are enduring today is a situation that many people are experiencing– at any rate, many more people than in the past. These new masses of people are looking for a better future, after a journey where many of them risked their lives. They are the survivors of the new century.
Facing them, often set up in clusters, are police trucks and police officers, charged with the task of checking papers and identities, a task that makes them nervous, excitable and less humane.
In Paris, a large “bubble” has been set up in the north of the city to welcome these new arrivals. This space, purpose-built to welcome asylum seekers, is presented as an access point where asylum seekers can reclaim some dignity. Users have the opportunity to shower, to eat and to sleep on beds. The volunteers and social workers, who believe the fate of humanity can’t be left in the hands of the sort of people who build border walls, reassure the migrants with their gestures and their assistance, translating documents and explaining administrative procedures. However, the [local support group] Groupe d’Information et de Soutien des Immigrés paints a darker picture, pointing out the overcrowding of the centre, the growth of informal settlements outside it, police violence and significant difficulties faced by people passing through the centre as they try to exercise their fundamental right to make an asylum claim in France.
Everywhere in the corridors of the Métro, there are women on their knees, accompanied by their children, with a sign reading “Familles syriennes” [Syrian families], sometimes even showing their Syrian passports to distinguish themselves from “false refugees” who claim to be Syrians in order to beg. Their presence is a symptom of the wider situation. Their visibility, in spaces where Parisians go every day, is bringing complicated geopolitical realities to our doorstep, in front of our powerless eyes, challenging our spirit of solidarity.
Another country, another context, another group of refugees: all it took was one political controversy for the border between the US and Canada to become a bridge for potential refugees. The election of Donald Trump, with his promise to build a border wall, enforce a “Muslim ban” at the country’s borders and send home thousands of Haitians, made thousands of people without status fear the worst. For many of them, the only solution was to cross the Canadian border. At Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, a border post linking Quebec and the United States, police officers’ hands are tied; tents and immigration agents await the border crossers. These future refugees, these human beings in exile, are hoping not to be dehumanized.
Only a few kilometres separate Lacolle from Montreal. There, the Olympic Stadium became another humanitarian bubble. Face to face with refugees, police officers became crowd control managers. Around them, some Montrealers organized a support rally, with signs and welcoming slogans. A few at a time, the asylum seekers left the stadium for neighbourhoods like Montréal-Nord, which welcome a large number of these asylum seekers and house many of the organizations that support them.
In Canada, as in Europe, the numbers of survivors have grown. They won’t stop growing. It’s not easy to erase decades of geopolitical rape and theft, or get rid of the effects of inequality enforced with clubs and batons. The course of history doesn’t change that quickly.
The flow of people that we’re witnessing today and encountering in our cities is a tiny proportion of the millions of displaced people in the world. You need to go to Lebanon to understand the real impact of the war in Syria that has forced millions from their homes. You need to go to Libya to understand the harm caused by European migratory policy, which abandons thousands of displaced Africans in the hands of gangs that enslave them.
These survivors will — maybe — achieve refugee status. This status lightens the load of pain and trauma borne by many. As refugees, far from their homelands, they’ll create a new path for their lives.
The humanitarian bubbles are there to save us from our own indifference. Today, facing the inhumane conditions that our own states have produced abroad, we, living in safe and comfortable societies, must not close our eyes, on the pain of losing our humanity.
The looks in the eyes of these Syrians in Paris and these Haitians in Montreal speak of the certainty of having nothing, tell stories of exile, crossing borders, waiting for hours in front of police stations, holding papers that forbid them to move further, holding refugee cards that speak of their new identity. Maybe tomorrow, they’ll tell stories of the societies that have welcomed them, exactly as they should.
Translated from French by Ruby Pratka