The Parc des Olieux is a neighborhood garden in the quartier of Moulin, not far from the center of the French town of Lille. The city website advertises the area with the words: “A small square of 8,000m2, this garden, separated from traffic by grassy hills, is ideal for children’s games in total safety!” Further descriptions are given of the charming landscaping and quiet environment which serve as both a family-friendly play area and an ecological haven for birds and insects who make their home in the park. What’s more, Parc des Olieux is held up by the city as a model of community not just because of the positive atmosphere, but because of its symbolic value. Formerly a run-down common area in an industrial part of town, the park was transformed by the government in 1992, embodying the ideals of renewal that the city sought to project through a series of building projects. Since that time, the park has served to “progressively draw residents and associations of the neighborhood into cooperative dialogue” as a symbolic and geographical center to the community.
What this glowing description doesn’t mention is the ways in which this space has been transformed and renegotiated over the past two years. Since the beginning of 2015, Parc des Olieux’s place as a pillar of family values and community has been challenged by the arrival of a small group of young migrants who made the park their home when the shelter where they had been living was closed. Over time, that small group attracted more and more people, until by early 2016, there were approximately 130 people living on the property, three quarters of which were unaccompanied legal minors. These youth, primarily boys from sub-Saharan nations such as Guinea, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, and Senegal, were living in positions of extreme precarity, either having been denied protection by the state, or trapped within a long process that left them vulnerable in the meantime. Their expectation in coming to France—that as children under the age of majority, they would be offered the protection of the state and provided for—had crumbled, and so they grouped together for shelter, mutual support, and to fight for visibility in pursuing their rights, trapped in this non-place of waiting for something better that seemed like it would never come.
In fact, according to the International Convention on the Rights of Children signed by France in 1989, “Every child who is temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her normal environment, or in his or her own interest cannot be left in this environment, has the right to the protection and special aid of the State.” The failure of the government to meet that requirement left these youth unprotected, and as the tent city in the Parc des Olieux grew, it began to attract more notice from the surrounding community. Faced with the needs of the minors living outside their windows, and in the absence of official aid, in September 2015, residents teamed up with associations, other community actors, and the young migrants themselves to form the Collectif des Olieux, an organization devoted to providing support, practical aid, and advocacy to those living in the park. The mission statement on their Facebook page states their goals as “to educate on their situation, but also to gather information about their needs so as to ensure a minimum of comfort in light of the precarious positions in which they currently find themselves.”
For a little more than a year, the Collectif des Olieux served as the primary support and advocate for the youth living in the park. The members worked to provide basic necessities for the migrants, including serving meals and offering French classes. In an effort to also meet psychological needs, sports and artistic events were organized and programs were set up to build relationships between individuals in the community and the youth. At the same time, the other major part of the Collectif’s work consisted of political lobbying for state recognition of the rights of the minors. Time was spent listening to and documenting individual stories, working to attract broader community involvement, and pushing for official status to be granted, especially for those whose years of struggle had left them almost at the age of majority when they would lose access to those rights.
A new challenge arose at the beginning of 2016. After almost a year of serving as the home of these migrants, the City of Lille filed a petition to force the removal of the youth from the Parc des Olieux. The petition cited as reasons the “disruption to the surrounding area and problems of hygiene in a popular neighborhood ‘that the City of Lille (MEL) has tried to revitalize’”. While the original case was rejected based on the judgement that expelling the youth would place them in “’an even more precarious position by obliging them to wander, and by depriving them of all the support and services that they have been able to benefit from up to this point,’” the decision was appealed and the battle continued for most of the year. Despite the efforts of the Collectif to prevent forced removal, and even the proposal of plans to open a shelter in the area for these youth to allow them to continue benefiting from the community’s support, the final decision on October 20 authorized the dismantlement of the camp. Over the next month, the teens either left or were relocated to various official shelters in other locations throughout the region.
While this may seem like the end of the migrant camp at the Parc des Olieux, the truth is that the situation continues to develop today. Despite the official dismantlement, approximately thirty young people still don’t have shelter and are hosted either by some families of the neighborhood, either by some areas near the park. The Collectif des Olieux is still active and continues to work to support the members of their community who need help, even if they are no longer present in the park.
**Our translations from French