An abridged version of this article can be found here.
I was recently on holiday in a very affluent part of France, Annecy, and I was given the opportunity to visit a shelter where 16 Refugee families (80 people) were living on a temporary basis. It’s a homeless winter shelter in a dilapidated and disused school building, which I discovered had been sold off to local developers.
People from all walks of life would sleep there until March 31st , when in accordance with local law the residents are served their eviction orders to find somewhere else to go.
The thing is there is nowhere for them to go. The current shelter residents are all too familiar with the streets of Annecy. Many of them had to sleep rough for months before gaining access to this shelter. This new ‘stable’ abode in the school building has become a home, and a school for the children, and most importantly, it’s the heart of this ever-growing displaced community.
Well, that is until Thursday July 21st, when police with loaded guns arrived at 7am and ordered everyone out, giving them ten minutes to pack their most valued (and luggable) possessions before locking the doors behind them. One family was put on a plane ‘home’, and others were taken to a detention centre, but most were left to their own devices: the local municipality has provided no resettlement plan or guidance for an entire refugee community.
The only help the refugees have been given has come from small French charities including Un Toit pour Tous (A Roof for All), and La Ligue des droits de l’Homme (the Human Rights League) as well as a grassroots charitable group called LakeAid, comprised of many Brits, some French and many other nationalities. They have consistently provided food, clothing and help with homework for the families in 2016.
Faruk is a Kosovan refugee and is the spokesperson for all the families in the school building as he speaks English and French reasonably well.
Slim, authoritative, well turned out and incredibly personable he is the father of two charming girls. Faruk worked for the US army and served 12 years in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite his employment history, the US wouldn’t accept his Kosovan mother and sister. Torn between his family and safety, he was forced to seek refuge elsewhere: he describes coming to France as the worst decision of his life.
The majority of residents are Kosovan refugees, but other nationalities include Georgian, Angolan and Guinean. They’ve all been living harmoniously in very basic conditions for several months in the disused school in Annecy.
As I walk into the large rectangular gym hall, the remnants of climbing bars clad the walls. They are now used to hang washing. The battered desks and plastic orange chairs are used for dining, I am kissed and greeted warmly by many of the female residents, shown a seat and within moments, handed a steaming cup of coffee and a biscuit.
There are well over 80 people living at the school — 41 of them children and two pregnant women, but not for much longer.
These families were initially given their marching orders to somehow find new accommodation by March 31st , in keeping with the French winter shelter guidelines. It appeared local officials and the property developer were keen to embark upon their project. However, delays in the general administration of such a task meant that a few extra months provided a welcome reprieve for all residents.
In reality, these families have had no choice but to stay and squat here, despite thrice-weekly visits from the police. Only a couple of families have been granted asylum and some of them have been waiting for up to six years.
Faruk tells me his story of how when his family first arrived in France in October 2012, they and other asylum seekers would be permitted to sleep at the Centre Georges Bonnet, but only from 5pm to 9 am and not a minute before or after. He said, ‘It didn’t matter if the roads were caked with snow. My wife and children would walk the streets trying to find somewhere warm. The shopping centres would often kick them out if they didn’t buy anything, but buy with what? ... A disused school shelter is luxury by comparison’.
And what was he doing during the day, I asked.
‘I worked for a charity, Secours Populaire’ he said. For one year, they didn’t pay me anything, but it is supposed to help when you make an application.’
He then worked as an interpreter between Serbians and Albanians for another year, again free of charge, but little good it has done. Six years on, his family still wait to be accepted and housed so their expulsion from the school building is a devastating blow, as they are right back to square one.
His daughters, however, have been in school for 3 years or longer, which according to the recommendations under the French rule of law for granting Asylum, is yet another check in the box, but still nothing has changed. Despite their desperation to earn, he and his wife can not legally work.
‘If I take jobs on the black market and I am caught, that’s it; they will send me back, but we need to find money to live and eat.’
Any money that is earned by any adult members of the 16 families gets pooled so that food and necessary basics can be bought for the entire community living at the shelter.
‘It’s crazy’, I say to Farouk. ‘How is it possible that you can not work and still support your families, yet your children are permitted to be in school here?’
‘We are lucky that LakeAid (lakeaidannecy.wordpress.com) and local charities help us with food, bedding and clothing, and we have some kind teachers volunteering to help the kids with their homework so that they can keep up in school, but now we are facing the street again – all of us, how will they go to school like this when they can not even wash?’
When I visited the school building, there was one shower that all residents used on a rota. It’s impressively organised and dignified. The residents have managed to keep up the good working order that Charity Gaia introduced.
Shianaz, a 13 year-old girl, gives me a tour of the school building. She is polite and softly spoken, dressed smartly in jeans and a shirt and clearly on the verge of womanhood.
My mind wanders off as I consider her innocence and the transition she may be forced to make, too early, like so many other desperate young girls that fall prey to a broken, unfair system and its unscrupulous players— with no one looking out for them. Only earlier in the evening I heard the story of Sofa, Shianaz’s friend, who is only 15 and who now lives with her boyfriend, who is 19. He no longer allows her to see her mother, family and friends or associate with any others at the shelter.
Shianaz is Kosovan but she speaks fluent French and some English so we manage to communicate quite well. I ask her how she feels going to a normal school as a refugee. She tells me for her it is a secret, but that it isn’t a secret for many of her friends. She wants to learn and is anxious about not being able to due to the constant threat of eviction.
We return to the school hall and I ask Faruk how the authorities can justify turning him away and constantly turning down his application. I pause to collect myself; he shows no anger about his situation — just resignation, so the least I can do is manage my own.
To the latest refugees in crisis, Faruk says, ‘If they are smart, they will not come here. They are not welcome. No one is welcome: they smile when you fill papers to Demande d’Asilel [seek asylum], but they know you will not make it through.’
On Thursday, what they have feared the most arrived — an eviction notice with no place to go. Some 16 refugee families, displaced from previous wars and conflicts, many of which we have played a part in.
I consider the school building for a moment, what these people are losing is, as a set up, relatively palatial compared to the refugee camps that I have witnessed in Calais and Dunkirk, but the agony of their insecurity is the same. Today’s eviction needn’t have happened, but in one fell swoop they have lost all semblance of community, stability and dignity. The French authorities have liberated a school building, but what have they unleashed in terms of social problems in the next ten years as these traumatised children grow up? When is long term thinking going to outweigh short term political manoeuvring?
For refugees (some 65 million forcibly displaced worldwide), it is an endless cycle of trauma, displacement, brutality and disappointment.
This particular group of 16 families provides a heartbreaking insight into what continues to happen to them around the world, as they are left to fend for themselves in new territories, often treated as subhuman or common criminals – punished as if they are the ones that have a hand in the conflicts they’ve fallen victim to. Up to six years on, most of these families have no home and no official help.
Today, as we look to Syria, the current refugee crisis and consider the impact and the scale of this future problem, it is clear that we continue to ignore the writing on the wall. With such pandemic displacement and inhumanity, what level of magnitude do the consequent social problems have to reach before we action the cause? By continuous retaliation, armed conflicts and terror, we simply create more of the same.
For those of us that find this entirely unacceptable, I can only hope that we continue to highlight such injustice in which ever ways we can and help these people integrate and find a rightful home.
If you’d like to help these evicted families, please sign the following
petition for a right to abode:
If you would like to help support these refugees donate to:
and to help refugees worldwide and / or help raise awareness on the crisis, then please donate to: