Paris 2024 holds a parade as athletes welcoming the Olympic Torch after it was revealed earlier on 25 July 2023. EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED BADRA


Migrants, Roma evicted from squats ahead of Paris 2024 Olympics


Camelia Toldea has packed her family’s suitcases ready for a quick exit from an abandoned building where she and dozens of other Roma live, fearful the squat will be next in a wave of evictions near Paris’ 2024 Olympic Games facilities.

Romanian-born Toldea, her husband and three children are among thousands of migrants, asylum seekers and Roma caught up in evictions in the north Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis that are aggravating the city’s homelessness problem ahead of the games.

More than half of the structures being built or renovated for the Summer Games starting in July are located in Seine-Saint-Denis, including the under-construction Olympic Village.

Spreading east from the river Seine and home to more than 1.6 million people, Seine-Saint-Denis is the poorest department in France. With asylum seekers and Roma taking shelter there, it has the largest number of squats and informally built slums of any department in the country, according to a 2021 report by the housing authority.

At least 60 squats in Seine-Saint-Denis were shut down in 2023, according to a Reuters tally based on administrative and court documents and interviews with more than 50 squatters, lawyers, prosecutors, social workers, activists and local politicians, in what advocates and some officials said appeared to be a policy aimed at beautifying the area for the sporting event.

The Seine-Saint-Denis branch of France’s interior ministry, known as the prefecture, told Reuters the squat evictions were not connected to the Olympic games, but follow normal legal procedures. These were made faster by a new law passed in July that also imposes large fines and prison sentences for illegal occupation.

Last year, the prefecture said, there were just under 80 squat closures. The Reuters tally of 60 evictions this year is almost certainly an undercount, advocates said. The prefecture has not complied with a freedom of information ruling that it should provide data for squat evictions from 2018 to 2023.

The squat closures are pushing more vulnerable people into unstable living situations after the government reduced social hotel places used for emergency housing in the suburb by 1,000, roughly a ten per cent cut, Valerie Puvilland, operational director of Interlogement 93, the operator that manages emergency housing for the state in the Seine-Saint-Denis region, said in an interview.

Reuters counted at least 3,000 people affected by the squat closures. Some are ending up on the streets of Seine-Saint-Denis and other Paris districts, while others were sent to distant parts of France, advocates and squatters said.

“The Olympic Games are adding additional pressure because there are fewer hotels renting rooms for social cases,” Lea Filoche, the deputy mayor of Paris in charge of housing, told Reuters, citing decisions by some hotels to be ready for an influx of visitors. Reuters could not independently confirm how many hotels were affected.

Of 32 closed squats for which Reuters was able to locate an address, 13 were within two kilometres of a main Olympic site in the 236 sq kilometres Seine-Saint-Denis according to the Reuters tally.

One, an old cement factory a stone’s throw away from the future Athlete’s Village and housing some 400 migrants mostly from Sudan and Chad, was closed by police in April, Reuters observed. A Roma camp of 700 people behind the North Paris Arena in Villepinte was also shut down, two witnesses said.

The evictions have exacerbated homelessness as the turfed-out residents add to already outsized demand for social housing and state-provided accommodation, Puvilland said.

Deputy mayor Filoche said she had never seen so many people on the streets of Paris, especially children.

“If their aim is to have the Games where we don’t see poverty, then the plan to evict squats is not a good plan – it is stupid, they are evicting people from squats and putting them in the public space,” said Filoche, who called on the government to requisition empty buildings, including former hospitals and offices, to house the homeless.

Highlighting the situation, on December 13, Interlogement 93 said it had no shelter places available, leaving 665 callers on the street, including 54 pregnant women.

Interlogement 93 data shows that unmet demand on some days this month was almost double compared to last year. The emergency housing provider cited a number of overlapping issues including a reduction of available places and squat closures.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo warned in November that the city would not be “ready” to provide shelter for the homeless in time for the Olympics. The national government did not respond to requests for comment.

The empty warehouse containing self-built wooden cabins that house Toldea’s family along with about 70 other Roma is located in Ile Saint-Denis, about 2 kilometres from the future Athletes’ Village.

The family was evicted from a previous squat in the area in May, and earlier in the year police ran them out of a disused hotel they had participated in occupying just a few days earlier. Now, Toldea worries she won’t find anywhere else to live in Seine-Saint-Denis, after a November mayoral decision to close the squat.

Victor Drot, an official in the Ile Saint Denis mayor’s office said the looming eviction followed a fire at the warehouse. Citing the long backlog for social housing, Drot said “There is no solution in this town.”

Toldea applied for social housing two years ago. The average wait time is eight years, Drot said.

“We can’t go anywhere else. The kids go to school here, we know the area,” said Toldea, 31, who sells bric-a-brac at the Clignancourt flea market nearby.

Reuters spoke with nineteen migrants evicted from four squats in the vicinity of Olympic-related infrastructures or urban development projects between April and August.

Two of them were assigned stable accommodation by the prefecture, but the others were left to themselves and went on to sleep rough or find space in other squats.

Interlogement 93 said that after evictions, most accommodation offered by Seine-Saint-Denis authorities only lasts a few days, echoing testimony of evicted people Reuters consulted.

The French government, the Paris police, and the Seine-Saint-Denis prefecture did not respond to requests for comment on the clearance of squats and camps, and the care provided to the homeless in the Paris region.

Some of the nineteen moved into four other squats in the Paris region, all of which were themselves subsequently evicted or have been handed an eviction notice.

Many were offered places in other parts of France, following a push by the national government this year to “unclog” the Paris region, which has the highest demand for emergency housing in the country.

Speaking of the plan in May, then-housing minister Olivier Klein said homeless people would be relocated to other regions and linked the push to the Games, saying hotels were terminating government contracts to welcome tourists for the event.

Reuters spoke to four people who accepted transfers to Bordeaux, Toulouse and Strasbourg following squat evictions but returned to Paris due to a lack of support or opportunities in the new locations, or because the accommodation offer was terminated.

By mid-December, 3,329 people had been transferred from Paris to temporary accommodation lasting three weeks, according to Paris authorities.

Another national government plan, for “Zero Delinquency” during the Olympics, included measures to dismantle squats, according to three local officials consulted by Reuters and a parliamentary report.

“People can’t see slums and shanty towns. With the Olympics, we are selling the image of France abroad,” said Sebastien Piffeteau, a prosecutor briefed on the plan who is coordinating Olympics-related affairs in the common law division of the Tribunal in Bobigny, which oversees Seine-Saint-Denis.

The Interior Ministry declined to provide Reuters with information about the plan, despite a freedom of information request being granted in September.

The broad outline of the plan can be found on the Paris police website, but few details have been made public.

Squatting in the city can be traced to 19th century working-class radicalism of the Paris Commune. In recent years migrants have also turned to disused buildings for shelter.

Advocates say squats are often the only option for housing, while critics say they are a dangerous nuisance.

The evictions this year were fanned by the law passed in July, which criminalises occupation of industrial and commercial properties, as well as residential, Eric Mathais, chief prosecutor of Bobigny tribunal, told Reuters.

As well as evictions from squats, data from Paris authorities show that they have been clearing camps set up by homeless people around the city with greater frequency. Paris prefecture said 35 camps were torn down this year, compared to 19 in 2022.

While in some cases accommodation has been offered, Paris authorities have noticed a “staggering” increase in homeless people sleeping near the town hall, deputy Filoche told Reuters.

Services for the homeless – including food banks, showers, domiciliation services, and luggage storage – were “full and in the red,” she said.

Interlogement 93 received instructions this year from the prefecture to only offer accommodation to vulnerable people, including pregnant women, disabled people, and victims of domestic violence, according to a letter seen by Reuters. They often don’t even manage to do that due to a lack of available places, Puvilland said.

Insufficient state investment in social housing over the last decade has led to a reliance on hotels to house people, making the system particularly vulnerable, said Eric Constantin, director of the Paris section of the Abbe Pierre Foundation, which advocates for secure accommodation.

“We are very scared. We know that with the Olympic Games there will be millions of people” seeking hotel rooms, Constantin said.

Aggravating the situation for migrants, the French parliament adopted a law on Monday that conditions access to housing benefits for non-EU citizens on five years of residency in France.

In the longer term, the public body in charge of Olympic infrastructure, the Solideo, says the Athletes’ Village will be converted into nearly 3,000 homes, 17 per cent of which are general social housing units. Local groups say that this is not enough and that prices to buy are out of reach for many from the area.

Abdallah Ali, a refugee from Sudan, and 27 other refugees and asylum seekers were among the 400 people evicted in April from the cement factory, less than 500 metres from the Athletes Village, near the river Seine.

Ali and the others were taken in grey coaches to a hotel in a sleepy suburb south of Paris. A week later they were all told to leave with no explanation, he said, showing a text message informing him that his stay at the hotel ended on May 4th.

Ali had been sleeping rough since leaving the hotel, he said in September.

The hotel and Seine-Saint-Denis prefecture did not reply to Reuters request for comment or confirmation of Ali’s case.

“It’s not right to throw us out on the street like this. We work in France, we have more of a right to a place to live than the athletes coming in 2024,” said Ali, a waste collector, whose documents show has been on a waiting list for social housing since 2018.