In the Shadow of Paris’ Olympic Village, Migrants Are Pushed Into the Cold

The capital’s largest migrant squat — a 400-person community in a disused cement factory — was cleared out as part of a broader effort to sanitize the City of Lights ahead of the Games

In the Shadow of Paris’ Olympic Village, Migrants Are Pushed Into the Cold
Residents of the Unibeton squat in Paris protested their eviction, demanding housing for all those displaced. (Phineas Rueckert)

The clouds were tinged bubblegum pink as police arrived at the gates of Unibeton, a nondescript five-story building on the edge of Paris, in riot vans. Just after 6 a.m. on April 26, officers surrounded the building. A floodlight came on, casting harsh light on the 70 or so people gathered there — activists, humanitarian workers and a smattering of residents of the enormous building, who had been squatting there for the past three years. In the tense stillness of the morning, one resident unfurled a bedsheet and hurled it over the banister of the building’s access ramp. On it in red block letters was scrawled, in French: “Papers for all.”

As the police made a push toward the entrance, the crowd chanted: “No expulsion. Resettlement!”

Faris Al Khali Youssouf, a Chadian political refugee whom the residents had chosen as their spokesperson, called out to the police, “We will evacuate as you wish; we are not resisting. But please, no violence. There are families; there are children.”

Rows of police streamed in from the street, securing the perimeter and entering the building. They kettled protesters in the nearby courtyard, penning them in for hours.

The long-awaited evacuation of the Paris region’s largest migrant squat was underway.

The Unibeton squat — a disused cement factory on the outskirts of Paris — used to house some 500 migrants. (Phineas Rueckert)

As the police proceeded to clear the building floor by floor, residents were ushered into the courtyard to wait to be processed for temporary housing and bused to various migrant reception centers, hotels and gymnasiums across France.

“It’s sad,” Maina Mohammed, a Nigerian who had lived in the building for three years, told New Lines. He carried all of his belongings in one suitcase and a duffel bag. “If they send me outside of Paris, I’m not going,” he said.

Kamal, from South Sudan, rolled a cigarette as he reviewed an informational pamphlet in Arabic handed out by Watizat, a migrant rights organization, which included various guidelines for accessing services like healthcare and interpretation. He said he had arrived in Paris two months earlier, first crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Greece, then making his way through the Balkans and Eastern Europe by car. Like Kamal, most of the migrants here undertook a similarly long journey to get to the outskirts of Paris where, unable to secure housing, they found their way, usually by word of mouth, to Unibeton — a disused cement factory in Île-Saint-Denis, a municipality just north of Paris.

Since 2020, Unibeton has served as a refuge for up to 500 people at a time, mostly migrants from north and central Africa, making it the largest squat in the Paris region. But in February — three years to the month after it was opened — residents were told by the regional prefect that they would have to leave. “The site, unfit for habitation, presented risks for the inhabitants,” the prefect said in a statement to local media.

While the authorities claimed the safety of the inhabitants was their primary concern, the timing of the squat’s evacuation, the residents said, belied the government’s real motives. Unibeton lies just a few hundred meters from the future Olympic Village, which will host athletes for three weeks during the 2024 Summer Olympics, just over a year away. The expulsion of the Unibeton squatters, many felt, fell in line with an aggressive policy — often using mega-events like the Olympics as a catalyst — of urban renewal, which they say prioritizes development over human lives and disperses vulnerable populations, such as migrants and people experiencing homelessness, further from big cities in the interest of “sanitizing” them.

“In order to build a temporary space that represents ‘friendship between peoples,’ we are evicting a sustainable space and putting a whole population back on the streets,” said Paul Alauzy, the coordinator of sanitary missions at Médecins du Monde, a health NGO, present at the site that day. “It seems completely grotesque.”

A week or so before the evacuation, I cycled north from Paris, past the working-class flea market in neighboring Saint-Ouen, a gritty but quickly gentrifying suburb, and across the Seine River to Île-Saint-Denis.

It was an unseasonably cold mid-April evening, with ominous storm clouds in the distance. From the street, Unibeton — a T-shaped gray building with two wings of offices and another, elevated wing that juts out dramatically over the Seine — looked empty, with trash strewn about and graffiti on the walls, several bikes locked to the railing outside. The building’s silos had once been used to stock and bag cement but were converted to offices in the 1990s before the structure was abandoned when the company moved its headquarters to a high-rise in Paris’s financial district. Surrounding the 2.5-acre Unibeton site were warehouses and then, a bit further away, outlet shops and public housing towers. Inside the building, however, the ambience was lively, with dozens of people milling about, talking on phones, chatting and preparing meals.

I met Yaya Mohamed Abdelkrim at the back entrance of the building where he was doing dishes in the courtyard. He led me up a spiral staircase and down a dark hallway to a room he had insulated by pinning flowery sheets and thick rugs to the walls to prevent draft. At the door, he gestured for me to take off my boots, which I did, placing them in the entrance hall.

We entered the room, which, in addition to serving as a functional reception area, was also his bedroom. The walls were covered with flags, trophies from soccer tournaments and a language diploma. There was a family-sized pot of chicken stew cooking on an electric hot plate. A young man worked on a sewing machine, hemming the edges of a silk “jalabiya,” a robe worn to mark the end of Ramadan. Just after we entered the room, hail started to patter on the third-floor windows.

Mohamed, who was one of the squat’s community leaders, had been at Unibeton since February 2020, just one month before France’s nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. It was during this time that migrants — first from Morocco, then from Chad and Sudan — began occupying the building. They cleaned the halls and converted the offices into dormitories. Once a week, residents passed around a hat to collect money to pay for water and electricity, thanks to an agreement with the town hall. They installed open air showers in the courtyard and worked with two artists to paint an enormous mural on the black facade.

“It’s very difficult for us, but since we don’t have the choice, we stay in the building so we don’t end up on the streets,” said Abdelkrim, who fled military rule in Chad. “People know one another; we’re like brothers. We eat together, drink together.”

The squat was always supposed to be temporary, residents insisted, but over time it had become a sort of landing place for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, many of whom were undocumented or whose papers had expired. “A squat is made to be dismantled,” Youssouf said.

In October 2020, about half a year after they had taken up residence, a judge ruled that the squatters would have to be evacuated — giving them a one-year grace period. But a number of factors — including the “trève hivernale” (winter truce), a period from November to March during which expulsions are banned, combined with the complicated nature of the operation and a lack of political will — prolonged the expulsion, according to Oriane Sebillotte, a member of Paris D’Exil, one of several humanitarian organizations whose staffers regularly visited the squat and helped residents with paperwork and other services.

This situation was aggravated, she said, by the November 2020 evacuation of a camp of about 2,000 migrants who had been living under an elevated highway exchange in Saint-Denis. Temporarily housed by the French government in hotels and gymnasiums in the Paris area, many of these migrants found themselves back on the streets several weeks later. Increasingly, they gravitated toward a number of squats in the formerly industrial suburbs, including Unibeton.

Most of the squatters who took up residence at Unibeton were from Chad and Sudan, according to Alauzy of Médecins du Monde, who visited the squat once a month. Nonetheless, you could also find Ivorians, Nigerians, Libyans and Eritreans. Many residents had jobs in the Paris area, often in food delivery and construction, but were unable to afford market-rate housing nearby, which averages about $850 a month. According to Matteo Bonaglia, a lawyer who represented the Unibeton residents, more than half of the roughly 400 to 500 inhabitants were on wait lists for social housing, but the average wait time for such accommodation in the greater Paris region hovers around 10 years.

The residents’ administrative statuses were highly varied, Alauzy explained — ranging from political refugees to economic migrants whose work visas had expired or who had entered the country without one. Others were “Dublinés” — those covered by the EU’s Dublin Regulation that requires one to seek asylum in the first EU nation entered — who were at risk of being expelled back to Greece, Italy or other countries on the outskirts of Europe that are early ports of call for those coming to the continent.

For these vulnerable populations, squats like Unibeton “completely changed the migratory patterns in the Paris area,” Alauzy said. After the massive migrant camp in Calais known as The Jungle was dismantled in 2016, sending some 8,000 people to sleep rough on the country’s streets, French police have aggressively patrolled Paris’ suburbs, breaking up small encampments and destroying tents and property. For those forced to live on the streets, the squat offered not only a roof but also a “platform for making demands and solidarity,” he said.

Humanitarian organizations like Médecins du Monde and Watizat regularly visited, helping residents with paperwork, healthcare and housing requests.

Nonetheless, life at the squat was not easy, Harouna Idrissa, a resident, told me on a Sunday afternoon several days before the evacuation.

Idrissa, in his mid-40s, had been living in the squat since the previous July. “If you work, it’s hard to get more than one or two hours of sleep,” Idrissa said. “There are 12 people in this room.”

“Sometimes you can even find people under here,” he added, pointing to the table in front of us.

Idrissa’s path to Unibeton was, according to his telling, like that of many other residents: long and winding. Originally from Niger, Idrissa said he first traveled to Libya, where he worked in a restaurant, before crossing the Mediterranean in a small boat, landing in Italy. (“Three people died,” he told me of the journey.) In Italy, he and a friend paid 50 euros (about $55) each to cross the border into France in the back of a car, he said. They slipped by, undetected, but many migrants attempting this crossing by train or foot are immediately pushed back into Italy by police.

Idrissa applied for asylum in the French city of Besançon, just over the border from Switzerland. He then moved to Strasbourg, near the border with Germany. In the summer of 2022, he told me, he got divorced and found himself without an apartment. A couple of friends told him about a squat near Paris.

As we spoke, Idrissa rifled through his suitcase for a letter he had received in the mail regarding his request for social housing in nearby Montreuil. He was hoping the squat would not be evacuated before the end of May, the deadline to receive a decision on his housing request.

“We are rejected, thrown to the streets, but we are human beings,” he said. “If you throw people out of here, they will set up outside somewhere under a tent.”

Residents of the squat had good reason not to put down too many roots in Île-Saint-Denis. All around Unibeton, cranes work day and night on one of the future sites of the Olympic Village, which will be spread across portions of Île-Saint-Denis and two neighboring municipalities.

This massive infrastructure project, the agency in charge of delivering Olympics infrastructure by 2024 proclaimed, will “incarnate 21st century urbanism thanks to its energy performance, carbon neutrality and strong recognition of biodiversity.” After the Games, the Île-Saint-Denis section of the village will be turned into an “eco-neighborhood” with about one-third of apartments carved out for social housing, a staggeringly low percentage for one of the poorest cities in France where roughly one-third of residents live below the poverty line. Île-Saint-Denis’ current housing stock is more than 60% social housing.

The changes are already palpable in Île-Saint-Denis. Modern apartment buildings have opened up along the riverbank. There is an upscale French-Italian restaurant and a newfangled butcher shop with clean, fluorescent lighting. Today, most of the town’s former industrial buildings and warehouses have been razed or abandoned.

Despite this, Unibeton has remained standing. While the site, which is privately owned, is not part of the development plan for the Olympics, activists and residents said the proximity of the squat to the future Village would have made for bad optics.

“You can’t get any closer,” said Sebillotte, one of the aid workers at Unibeton. “They are basically neighbors.” She says there is a clear connection between urban redevelopment plans linked to the “Grand Paris” — a mid 2000s urban renewal project aimed at transforming Paris’ traditionally working-class outer suburbs — and the 2024 Olympics, both of which have pushed homeless and migrant populations further from the center of Paris.

Bonaglia, the lawyer for the Unibeton residents, was more emphatic, saying the expulsion “wasn’t urgent for the owner of the building but rather to satisfy public policy objectives.”

“Admittedly, 400 Black people, many of them undocumented, squatting in not great conditions in a building near a major site for the great mass of the Olympic Games stands out like a sore thumb.”

While activists say the connection is clear-cut, others insist that the Games are not to blame. “The Olympics are not the cause,” argued Eric Constantin, the local director of the Fondation Abbé Pierre, a nonprofit research organization. “The Olympics are a good excuse for getting rid of squats, but urban renewal projects have always been a reason for evacuations.”

Philippe Monges, the delegate advisor of urban planning in Île-Saint-Denis, didn’t see a link between the expulsion of Unibeton and the construction of the Olympic Village. “If there had been an accelerated procedure, maybe we could have said it was obvious, but it has been three years” since the squatters took up residence and two and a half since the process to evacuate them was launched, he said. “To me, it seems like a normal and classic process.”

He added that since the Unibeton building was privately owned, “the city didn’t really have much say in the matter” of the expulsion.

The plan to build an eco-neighborhood on Île-Saint-Denis, Monges explained, dated to 2008 — well before both the occupation of Unibeton and the decision to host part of the Olympic Village. By the time the Olympics committee came to the city with its request, they had already finished construction on the first of three phases of the project.

“When Paris 2024 came to see us, we already had a project,” Monges said. “We told them that we would love to host an Olympic Village but that our priority is legacy. If it fits into our project, then all the better, but those are our conditions.”

Some scholars nonetheless worry that the Paris Olympics will lead to displacement in suburbs like Saint-Denis. In 2018, the urban geographer Manon Vergerio mapped “gentrification risk” linked to the 2024 Olympics, finding that neighborhoods with the highest foreign-born and immigrant populations tended to cluster near future Olympics infrastructure, where rents are expected to increase the most in the coming years.

Jules Boykoff, author of the book “Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics,” told New Lines that while Olympics host cities in the Global South were struck by “the iron fist of displacement,” cities in the Global North tended to face “the velvet glove of gentrification.” In Newham, a formerly working-class neighborhood in East London, he noted, housing prices skyrocketed after London hosted the 2012 Olympics. “Not coincidentally, it also became the London borough with the highest rate of homelessness or rough sleeping,” he said.

The Olympics, while not the sole cause, “can be a catalyst for ongoing processes of gentrification in the city,” he said. “The thing about the Olympics is it provides a deadline for the gentrification to happen.”

To Andrea Florence, a Brazilian activist and member of the Sport and Rights Alliance, a coalition of NGOs and activists pushing for human rights in sports, the situation at Unibeton was reminiscent of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. There, about 400 families living in a shanty town called Vila Autodrómo, near an Olympics stadium, were expelled in an attempt to clean up the area in advance of the Games. While families were given alternative housing solutions after a concerted activism campaign, they complained of shoddy construction and, in some cases, aggressive police interventions.

“You can see a correlation between [land speculation] and exactly where the Olympic project was built,” Florence said. “So that means more money for the rich and the poor being removed from their homes and going very far away from the city and everything that they can benefit from by being close to a big city.”

In Paris, as in Rio, residents of Unibeton also began to fight back against Olympics gentrification. In February, dozens of residents marched from Unibeton through neighboring Saint-Denis, carrying signs and banners as they blocked the tramway.

Two months later, on a rainy day in mid-April, they installed tents in front of the Bobigny police prefecture, a tall, modern building in the north of Paris, to demand a meeting with the prefect of the Seine-Saint-Denis region — the person in charge of expulsions.

About an hour or so into the protest, several leaders of the squat and Bonaglia, their lawyer, were ushered into the building to meet with the prefect. The goal of the meeting was not so much to save Unibeton, Bonaglia explained, as to use it as leverage to obtain better housing solutions.

Several days earlier, the residents had been offered 440 rooms, most of them short-term and about half of them outside the Paris area, in exchange for freely evacuating the squat. This proposal was in keeping with a new government policy of “decluttering” the Paris area through the creation of various housing “poles” across France, where migrants would be sent to be resettled. But many of the towns where housing poles are located are short on low-skill jobs and lack the infrastructure — like reliable transportation — to support newcomers, ultimately isolating the migrants and keeping them confined to their rooms. Migrants rights groups say the goal of the policy is ultimately to clean up Paris and expel migrants as far as possible from the capital.

In a letter seen by New Lines, the prefecture also committed to “supporting the request of regularization of some files … of those who have been present for a long time in the French territory and who work.”

“It was a very imperfect proposal,” Bonaglia said, noting that just eight to 10 of the rooms of the 440 that had been proposed were “dignified.”

Although multiple people present at the meeting told me it had gone well, the leaders came away with little clarity. “The proposition of the prefecture is by no means housing for all,” Youssouf, the residents’ spokesperson, wrote to me on WhatsApp a couple of days later. (The prefecture did not respond to requests for comment.)

So when, just 11 days after the meeting and with no further explanation from the prefecture, the news began circulating on WhatsApp that the evacuation was scheduled for the following morning, it caught many of those to whom I spoke as I reported this story by surprise.

Aurelia Huot, a lawyer at Barreau de Paris Solidarité who had been assisting residents with paperwork, described the manner in which the expulsion was announced as “brutal.”

“These are people who have been there for three years, most of whom work, who have connections to the Paris region, who have accumulated belongings,” she said. “If we as civil society organizations, lawyers and supporters hadn’t been warned, 400 police officers would have arrived at 6 a.m. to evacuate people without informing them of their rights, without interpreters, without giving people time to pack up their belongings.”

“There would have been clashes,” she said.

The police prefecture saw things differently. “The evacuation took place in a calm environment and those who desired were directed to emergency housing,” the prefect wrote on Twitter around 7 a.m. on April 26, the day of the evacuation.

According to Huot, 10 residents who worked in the Paris area refused a temporary housing placement in the southwestern city of Toulouse and were denied appeals for housing in the Paris region. They ended up on the streets. Many others — those residents undocumented and thereby risking arrest — had left the night before, various sources told me.

Later that day, I checked in with Idrissa, who had already been sent to a refugee processing center in Melun, about an hour south of Paris. He seemed in high spirits. “I’m going to stay here until they tell me what comes next,” he said.

Others, however, said that it would take some time for the dust to settle and worried that many of the residents would end up back on the streets.

“A lot of people will be back on the streets within three, four, five days,” Huot warned. “The solutions from the prefecture are not sustainable.”

Whether or not the Olympics were the catalyst for the people living at Unibeton to lose their homes, their needs remain the same. “All we’re asking is for people to be housed,” Youssouf said.

As people gather in the City of Lights to tend to the flame of international cooperation and sportsmanship, Youssouf worries they’ll be too dazzled by the spectacle to see those who are left out in the cold. “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” he said, referring to France’s national motto. “I think France is not that, in fact. In reality, what’s happening is a far cry from equality.”

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