France’s overcrowded centres for migrant workers turn deadly during pandemic
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Covid-19 has already killed two people in a cramped centre for migrant workers run by the French semi-public company Adoma in a Paris suburb. Remaining residents reached out to the FRANCE 24 Observers to highlight their horrendous living conditions. They are desperately trying to isolate in their tiny rooms, which measure 7m², but are still forced to share kitchens and bathrooms with their neighbours.
A group of residents and activists filmed a series of videos on May 10 to document the terrible living conditions at a centre for migrant workers in Les Ulis, located in the Essonne department near Paris.
Many images show the kitchen, which is shared by 18 people and poses an immense risk for disease transmission during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The centre is located about 30 kilometres to the south of Paris. Its 325 rooms house both migrant workers and asylum seekers.
When the centre was built in 1973, it was supposed to include 163 rooms, each measuring 14m². In the end, however, the rooms were cut in half. They now measure about 7 m² and are rented for about €300 per month.
The centre is run by Adoma, a semi-public company. That means that it is partially owned by the French government and the Caisse des Dépôts, a public sector financial institution which is often called the “investment arm” of the French government.
This image shows one of the group kitchens, which is shared by 18 residents in the centre. Some kitchens have become even more overcrowded as homeless people have moved in, as shown in the video above.
"Blackened walls, prostitutes, bedbugs and dealers”Forty-three-year-old Issa Dambele came to France from Mali 15 years ago. He’s been living in the centre since 2008. Dambele, who works as a garbage collector, first contacted the FRANCE 24 Observers team in February about the poor living conditions residents were enduring and their growing terror as Covid-19 spread:
I’ve never been comfortable in this centre, between the dirtiness and the impoliteness, the dealers and the bed bugs. I’ve often found myself in a crisis situation, without resources or any kind of assistance. I’ve had to go knock on my neighbour’s doors for a bit of sugar for my coffee, a bit of oil for cooking or a bit of soap.
There are young people from the nearby projects who come and sell drugs in the stairwells. If we ask them to leave, the tone gets heated. It’s common to get death threats or knife marks on your door.
The building managers, who work for Adoma, try to get rid of the dealers but it is impossible. As soon as the police get here, they flee and go and hide in one of the rooms.
This is a screengrab of a video filmed by our Observer in March 2020. It shows one of the stairwells covered with bottle caps, cigarette butts and unidentified liquids. Our Observer says that the mess was left by dealers and a minority of residents.
"We try to rest up so we can go to work. We often have tiring jobs”
Some of the walls are blackened from a mix of spit and urine and coffee. There are Nigerian prostitutes who use the rooms to meet clients on the weekends. And in the midst of all that, there are people like me who are trying to live a normal life, trying to rest up so we can go back to work every day, often in tiring jobs.
One of the blackened walls in the Ullis migrant centre, as photographed in April 2020 by activist Lamine Sidibe.
It’s a dangerous place for our health. When I think about the Chibanis, who have been living in these places for 35 or 40 years, I get shivers [Editor’s note: the Chibanis are migrant workers who came to France after WWII from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mali and Senegal. Today, many of them have now retired but remain both poor and isolated and often still live in these centres.]
When Covid-19 hit, I realised it would be impossible to practise lockdown in the centre. It’s overcrowded and there is a lack of hygiene. You have to share the bathrooms with the 17 other residents on your floor. In mid-March, I decided to leave the centre and went to go and stay with my girlfriend.
Since Dambele left the centre, two residents have died of Covid-19. Both men were over 70 and both died in the hospital, according to Adoma. A third elderly man was found dead in his room during the lockdown, though his death likely had nothing to do with Covid-19. Eight other people have shown symptoms of the virus and four of those people have been hospitalised.
"These people are left in a place where confinement is impossible”Lamine Sidibe, the president of ASTI (an organisation whose name translates to the Association of Solidarity with All Immigrants) in Les Ulis, is trying to defend the human rights of the people living in the centre. Years ago, Sidibe was a resident there himself.
With these deaths and hospitalisations, we’re sure that the virus is circulating within these centres. And yet these sometimes extremely vulnerable people are left in a place where it is impossible to practice self-isolation or social distancing. At the very beginning of the crisis, I warned both politicians as well as the centre management. Adoma told me that precautions had been taken. Faced with this exceptional crisis and potential health scandal, I thought that they were taking exceptional measures. But these measures weren’t taken and we’ve had deaths.
This centre is no longer fit for purpose. It needs to be declared unsafe and unsanitary and a new building needs to be constructed so that these residents can live in decent housing. Trapping a man in a room that measures 7m² is like living in a cage. It’s inhuman.
"I can touch it with two fingers [Editor’s note: the walls on opposite sides of the room], 7m² is worse than a prison,” says one resident in this video from May 10. In a prison in France, the average cell size is 9m².
Adoma says that the most important steps have already been taken
Christophe Roussel, who is the manager for Adoma centres in the Essonne department, says that important measures have already been taken. Roussel says they’ve cleaned door handles and light switches, put up posters and tried to raise awareness. He says they’ve been checking in on vulnerable people by telephone. He also says that anyone who reports symptoms is moved to the hospital or special housing reserved for those with Covid-19. He says that 12 people were tested for the virus in late April and three of those cases were positive. A further 25 people were set to be tested on May 15.
"Families live in these tiny rooms"The Youssef Nazario Association has been delivering meals and groceries to people in these migrant centres. The organisation’s coordinator, Youssef Naggaou, spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team.
"We’re launching an appeal for donations for some of the people living in the Adoma centre who are struggling to get enough to eat. They need rice, pasta, oil, canned vegetables and sugar,” the group posted on Facebook on April 14 before going to distribute food (as shown in the video, above).
What really struck me is that there is a 10-year-old child who I often see playing with the children from my neighbourhood. When I went to the centre, I realized that he was living there with his family. It must be so difficult for an entire family to live in one of these tiny rooms. But it is either that or the streets…
In 2012, socialist member of parliament Maud Olivier spoke to the National Assembly about this establishment, which she said “forced its residents to endure the most disgraceful living conditions".
This photo shows a shower in the centre. The photo was taken in April 2020 by Lamine Sibide
Adoma is renting rooms that are smaller than the 9m² minimum allowed for private rentals, but that standard doesn’t seem to apply to them.
"The 9m² rule doesn’t apply to centres like this. Legal precedent has stated the enjoyment and use of common areas must be considered as well. However, the obligation to provide decent housing that doesn’t compromise the safety or health of residents remains,” says Agathe Céleste, a specialist in immigration law.
"There was a centre with rooms that measured 4.5 m2 in Argenteuil"Michael Hoare is the president of a group called Collective for the Future of Foyers (foyer is the French word for immigrant workers residences like this one). In French the name is Collectif pour l’avenir des foyers (COPAF). Hoare says that what is happening in Les Ulis is far from an isolated case:
In Argenteuil (which is 15km northwest of Paris), there was a centre with rooms that measured 4.5m², but the centre has since been destroyed and replaced.
It was common practice to chop the rooms in two, especially when it came to housing immigrants who came to reconstruct France after the war. However, back then, these buildings were considered spaces for group living. There was a big table in the kitchen, a recreation room and a cafeteria, for example. All of that made the living situations more bearable. But all of that disappeared for security reasons. These centres were built in troubled neighbourhoods and there were often problems with squatting, for example.
Covid-19 has transformed these spaces from very difficult to live in to downright dangerous. Luckily, for the time being, we haven’t seen any massacres in the centres that we are keeping an eye on. Though there are centres that have had one, two or three deaths from the virus. The problem is that these centres are important considering the immense affordable housing shortage that exists in France, especially in large cities, where it is incredibly hard to access affordable housing.
Adoma runs about half of the centres for migrant workers in France. On May 14, it reported that there had been 36 deaths from Covid-19 in its centres.
Impossible to rebuild the centre in Les Ulis
Everyone interviewed by FRANCE 24 says the current Adoma centre in Les Ulis is impossible to renovate and should be demolished. In its place, they say a decent building that is up to code should be built and that it should include individual studios that are at least 15m².
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Les Ulis independent mayor Françoise Marhuenda , who said that a new building containing 160 spaces should be built on the site and a second building, offering a further 165 spaces, should be built in a different area so as to “reduce the burden on a neighborhood facing many challenges”.
"However, when we talk to neighbouring communities about putting up a building with 165 spaces, discussions stall,” she said. “The government, which could bang its fist on the table, isn’t helping us at all.”
The building containing the migrant centre is nine stories tall and is located at the edge of the Western Quarter, a struggling, low-income community in Les Ulis. (Photo: Lamine Sibide)
Christophe Roussel, the manager for Adoma migrant centres in Essonne says that he is disappointed by the qualms expressed by people in neighbouring towns:
We’ve been trying for the past 23 years. When someone presents a project for a migrant centre to the residents of a neighbourhood, people almost always react badly and the cities back off. So we’re stuck and the situation drags on. We can’t find another site and the people in Les Ulis are stuck living in these conditions. We hope that the current health crisis will result in a general increase in awareness. This type of centre is no longer viable.
But for residents, these tensions between city governments don’t justify their poor living conditions.
"Every year, they tell us, ‘Don’t worry. The new building is coming, it’ll be this year!’ I’ve heard that for the past 12 years. I’m really sick of it. Adoma needs to take action, knock down this centre and take matters into its hands,” Dambele said.
Article by Liselotte Mas.