Paris refugees Porte Brunet – tunnel covered in graffiti with two rows of tents and a muddy path in the middle. At the back, a group of young kids is standing around.
All photos: Adnan Farzat

The Refugees Forced to Squat in a Freezing-Cold Tunnel

A shortage of beds at French homeless shelters forced over 150 refugees to live under a bridge.

This article originally appeared on VICE France.

“Living outside for a month in the freezing cold – sometimes sleeping on the ground – is worse than anything I could have ever imagined,” says Hicham, 16, from Guinea, slipping on a pair of cheap mittens. “I’ve been through tough times before, but winter here is just brutal,” he continues. “I sleep with all my clothes on so as not to freeze to death. Sometimes, I wonder how much longer I’ll last.”


I meet Hicham in November at his provisional shelter in a tunnel at Porte Brunet, in Paris’s northeastern 19th arrondissement. There are dozens of other unaccompanied minors like him living here, most originally from sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan.

About 150 have taken shelter in the tunnel in mid-October due to a shortage of beds at emergency shelters, including 25 families and ten kids aged one to 13. Local residents and the French NGO Utopia 56 donated tents to the group, which now stand in rows under the tunnel, each just a few centimetres from the next. Temperatures here can drop below four degrees Celsius, posing a huge threat to the refugees’ health.

Clad in a threadbare coat and a winter hat, Hicham told me he’d landed in France on the 20th of October this year. But before arriving in Paris, Hicham went through a months-long odyssey from his former home in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, via Mali and Niger. Once in Lybia, he was taken prisoner and received daily beatings, his hands and feet bound. Sometimes, he’d be strung up by his feet. He still bears a scar on his left leg which he showed me by rolling up his jeans.

Paris refugees Porte Brunet – teenager rolling up jeans and showing very large scar, about two cm wide and at least 5cm long, peaking out of his long white socks.

Hicham's scars of the turture inflicted to him in Lybia.

Hicham and two other detainees managed to escape 24 days later and get on a boat to the Italian island of Lampedusa. “I don’t have any money anymore, not since I crossed the Mediterranean,” Hicham says. “I’d saved money for three years, and now I’m here being treated like an animal.”


In the middle of the tunnel, a little face with big hazel eyes peered out of a tent. Swaddled from head to toe, baby Florian had just turned one. Three months prior, he and his mum Jocelyne fled their home near Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast. Jocelyne was determined to escape a forced marriage and to protect her baby. 

Paris refugees Porte Brunet – woman wearing black winter jacket, hat and mask, speaking with two guys in front of a row of tents leading into the tunnel.

Jocelyne (right).

At first, she and Florian were housed in a series of emergency shelters on the outskirts of Paris, but the pair was later bumped due to lack of space, Jocelyne says. “I dial 115 [France’s homelessness hotline] every day and I get the same answer: Put a blanket over the baby, we don’t have any more room.”

Florian can’t talk yet, but when he cries at night, his mother can tell it’s because he’s cold. Jocelyne bundles him up in blankets and holds him close to her body to keep him warm. “Sometimes the locals bring milk, but Florian won’t drink it because it’s so cold,” she says.

At 10:30PM, a song by Nigerian Afropop duo P-Square started blasting out of a small speaker somewhere in the tunnel. Barry, who likes to break it down in the evening, is in charge of the playlist. Soon, three more people join him and begin facing off in an impromptu dance battle. “We dance to keep warm,” says Abel, a 17-year-old from Mali. 

Paris refugees Porte Brunet – four teens standing inside of the tunnel in between tents and dancing.

Barry dancing in the tunnel.

“All of this was just supposed to be temporary,” Barry adds, “but unfortunately, you start forming habits.” Every morning at 9.30AM, he and Abel go shower in the fountain at a nearby park. Then, they come back and eat whatever the local NGOs have provided for them.


At the back of the tunnel, I speak with two Afghan teens stretched out on an old blanket, chatting in Farsi. Sohrad and Samim, 15 and 16, left Afghanistan together three months ago, fleeing the Taliban. The pair are originally from Bamiyan, 180 kilometres northwest of Kabul. Their city is famous for sad reasons: Its two immense statues of Buddha, erected between the third and fourth centuries, were blown up by the Taliban in March 2001.

Paris refugees Porte Brunet – face of a teen poking out of a semi-closed red tent. He is wearing a hat and smiling, in front of him a row of sneakers.

Sohrad, a 15-year-old afghan refugee.

“I’m afraid to sleep at night. I’ve been having nightmares for a week,” Sohrad says. “At least I’ve got a tent.” The pair consider themselves lucky to have a place to sleep in the tunnel at all. Over the past few weeks, the number of refugees taking shelter here has grown, and the new arrivals have to sleep outside the entrance in soggy tents. 

At 11PM, the refugees head toward one of the exits to receive food donations from the French NGO Restos du Cœur (“Restaurants From the Heart”), delivered Monday through Saturday. On tonight’s menu are tuna sandwiches, apples, cake and tea, distributed by volunteers under the thundering rain. “Since this summer, it’s just been relentless,” says volunteer Sonia. She estimates her organisation alone has been feeding about 800 people between the residents of the tunnel and the refugees at another camp in Canal de l’Ourcq.


Nestled in her father Moussa’s arms, 15-month-old Hawa was nibbling on a bit of cake. Moussa is desperately awaiting a housing solution for him and his daughter. Hawa has been sick for three months, and neither of them have access to healthcare. “I’m so worried about her,” Moussa says. “She’s coughing, and she threw up several times yesterday. All we have is a thermometer, and she has a temperature of 39.2 [degrees Celsius]. I don’t know what else to tell you.”

Shortly before midnight, a bunch of local residents come to help however they could. For Aneta, this was her first trip to the tunnel. Armed with a pot of tea, she distributes her homemade ginger infusion to the refugees. “We have a WhatsApp group for people in the neighbourhood who want to help,” she says. “I couldn’t just keep on passing by without doing anything; I just had such a knot in my stomach about this. If politicians abandon these people, at least we can still be there for them.”

Paris refugees Porte Brunet – man in jeans and a black winter jacket holding a baby dressed in thick winter clothes.

Hawa and her dad standing in front of their tent before bedtime.

Camille, founder and president of the local NGO Tendre la main (“Lend a Hand”), comes by with a team of volunteers to distribute food, drinks, and hygiene kits. “We try to help as many people as we can,” she says. “This week we gave out a lot of clothes to the women.” As a non-profit, Tendre la main solely runs on individual donations.


On the 30th of November, Utopia 56 was able to secure shelter for ten families in a school’s gym near Paris’s Gare de l’Est train station. “We’re trying to find a spot for everyone, but nothing is moving quickly enough,” says Pierre Mathurin, a representative for the organisation. “Politically speaking, nothing is happening.”

The local government’s inaction also prompted a protest in late November. “We’re not giving up. If we have to take this to the next level, we will,” declares Victor Moati, a local resident and part of the collective who organised the protest.

Paris refugees Porte Brunet –

“Sure, we’ll be brave, but for how long?” a young mum at the camp tells me before I leave. “This is no way to live. We left misery behind, only to come to hell.” At this, she disappears into her tent for the night.

Update: On the morning of the 14th of December, 2021, after surviving for two months in the tunnel, the 237 women, men and children were finally moved to shelters. The NGO France Terre d'Asile coordinated the operation on behalf of the authorities.

Scroll down to see more pictures.

Paris refugees Porte Brunet – woman wearing hijab speaking with two people, her face red because of the cold.

Camille, president of tendre la main.

Paris refugees Porte Brunet – Tents in a row leading into a tunnel covered in graffiti with a muddy path in the middle. Inside the tunnel lots of people are standing.

The long line of wet tents leading up to the entrance of the tunnel.

Paris refugees Porte Brunet – People sitting around a bucket containing hot embers.

An improvised and extremely dangerous heater.

Paris refugees Porte Brunet – refugee in a hat wearing a face mask on his chin, looking off camera.
Paris refugees Porte Brunet – refugee sitting on a chair in between tents, wearing winter clothes, his face covered by a hood.