|French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a close relationship with ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and activists think embassy documents might reveal dirty secrets about their dealings [REUTERS]|
In their quest to find a refuge from the streets of Paris, a group of Tunisian migrants have unwittingly become the centre of controversy.
They were amongst the thousands of Tunisians who fled economic and political uncertainty in their homeland early in the year, in the heady days after an uprising forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s former president, from power.
There are an estimated 600 Tunisians now living on the streets of the French capital, mostly from southern Tunisia, with little assistance from either the French authorities or their own government.
The French government has taken a hard line against these children of the revolution, with police playing cat-and-mouse, chasing them from camp to camp.
A 30 year old man from the southern Tunisian town of Zarzis, who preferred to go by the name of Karim, told Al Jazeera how he took a boat to the Italian island of Lampadusa on February 10, then took a train to Paris after five days.
Since then, Karim says, he has not stopped moving from place to place in search of somewhere to spend the night.
“Now we are really in the sh*t,” he said.
Disillusioned, many want to return home, but have no way to buy a ticket back.
“There are many people who want to go back to Tunisia but have no support,” Ali Gargouri, a French-Tunisian activist who has lived in France for many years, told Al Jazeera. “The Tunisian embassy is doing nothing to help them.”
One particular group of recent migrants turned to what they thought would be a legitimate sleeping place. On May 31, around 30 Tunisians took up camp in an abandoned building that had been officially known as the Tunisian Cultural Centre.
They quickly discovered that the site at 36, rue Botzaris, in a northeastern neighbourhood of Paris, had in fact belonged to Ben Ali’s now disbanded political party, the Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD).
They had stumbled across thousands of pages of archives from the former ruling party.
The migrants found two rooms filled with photos, correspondence, financial records, lists of RCD members in France, information on Tunisian dissidents, along with files on French political figures and journalists, sources told Al Jazeera.
The documents, activists promise, could contain many explosive scandals, particularly when it comes to French politicians.
Gargouri told Al Jazeera that a committee has been created to decide on what should be done with the documents, which are drawing considerable interest from media. For now, their contents remain a mystery.
A week later, the French police evicted them – at the request of the Tunisian embassy. With nowhere else to go, the group returned to the former “Cultural Centre” a few hours after they had been forcibly removed.
Yet the Tunisian authorities, who had paid little attention to this building until the migrants moved in, persisted in their efforts to assert their ownership of this building, which had been owned privately.The state has effectively taken over RCD properties elsewhere, after a Tunisian court dissolved the former ruling party and liquidated its assets and funds in March.
According to a statement from the Tunisian embassy in Paris on June 9, the decision to expel the migrants was made because of acts of vandalism, violence and complaints from the neighbours.
Then, on June 16, French police officers returned, forcing the Tunisians out definitively.
The statement adds that, with its annexation of the building, it “benefits henceforth from the cover of diplomatic immunity”.
Embassy officials refused to offer further comment to Al Jazeera.
Knowledge could be power
Paul Da Silva, a French activist who lobbies for freedom of information, says that the documents contain explosive revelations about French ties with the former regime’s leading figures.
Read more of our Tunisia coverage
“That’s why we’re here, to remind everyone that French politicians have been complicit with Ben Ali,” he said.
Much of the RCD’s official records disappeared in the chaos that followed Ben Ali’s fall from power on January 14, with document-burning sprees reported in public buildings across the country.
For lawyers and activists, the document stash in Paris gives them a second chance to comb through the RCD’s activities.
There have been reports in French media that some of the files were sold, and commentators note that some of those aware of the archive have had months to remove sensitive material. Al Jazeera is unable to confirm these reports.
The only major French political party to speak out about the episode is Europe Ecology (EELV), which condemned France’s failure to support the migrants at a time when Tunisia has itself offered refugee to some 500,000 migrants fleeing the conflict in Libya.
“It’s surprising that the French authorities have devoted so many resources to the protection of buildings and archives belong to the old [Tunisian] regime and have showed so little concern about the lack of any humanitarian reception for the Tunisians,” Cécile Duflot, the Ecology party’s national secretary, said.
The discovery of the alleged archives has coincided with the opening of an investigation into Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s assets in France.
With questions hanging over just how deep Tunisia’s political class is willing to dig into the alleged abuses and corruption that was so rife under the former regime, the documents could be a means for independent lawyers and activists to push for justice, whether in French or Tunisian courtrooms, on their own terms.
Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi were found guilty in absentia of theft and of charges relating to the illegal possession of arms and jewelry a week ago. The former president and those close to him will face many more trials over extensive allegations in the weeks and months to come.
Yet critics of the legal process say it is not going far enough, noting that the court dealt the first conviction during the trial in absentia lasted a mere 24 hours, leaving little opportunity for investigators to lay bare the bones of the regime. Activists argue that corruption extended well beyond the former president, and that knowing the truth is essential if Tunisia is to successfully make the transition to democracy.
“The Tunisian judiciary system is still not independent or unbiased,” Gargouri said. “People are focusing on the Ben Ali trial rather than looking too closely at the government that’s in power now.”
A judicial investigation targeting Ben Ali and the former Egyptian president, Hosni Moubarak, for money laundering allegations was opened in France on June 14.
As early as January 17, three organisations – the Arab Commission for Human Rights, SHERPA and Transparence International France – filed a complaint with the French public prosecutor urging a judicial inquiry into the assets held by the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families in France.
Myriam Svy, head of research at Transparency International France, told Al Jazeera that the French judicial authorities opened the investigation on June 9.
“Our objective is that a deep investigation is carried so that all the properties, all the money, can be returned to the Tunisian people,” Svy said.
The former Tunisian leader has issued a press release claiming he owns no property or bank accounts in France or any other foreign country.
Habib Essid, the Tunisian interior minister, visited Paris on June 15, the evening before the French authorities forcibly evicted the migrants from the former RCD property. No official reason was given for the visit and the Tunisian interior ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s queries regarding the reason for trip.
Since the eviction, the building – along with all the remaining documents – is under guard by a private security company 24 hours a day.
The Tunisian embassy chose to legally annex the building at 36, rue Botzaris on June 17 – a decision which throws a cloak of diplomatic immunity over the building, which means any remaining documents are effectively beyond the reach of the French legal system.
Ahead of the eviction, Gargouri and Soumaya Taboubi, French-Tunisian lawyer, transferred one-third of the documents to a “secure place”.
The activists removed well over 1,000 documents, Gargouri said, after some documents began disappearing.
Tip of the iceberg
As for the Tunisian migrants, they have been forced to scatter under continuing police pressure.
After their eviction, the group moved to the Buttes Chaumount Park across the street from the building. There, they faced daily visits from the police.
“The police are coming daily in unmarked cars to try to scare them,” Gargouri said. “It’s a question of intimidating and pressuring migrants.”
One night, it was teargas. Then their camp was destroyed by a squad of 50 police. On Wednesday, 22 Tunisians were arrested, only to be released within 24 hours.
A handful of French activists visited them daily, with some, including Paul Da Silva, spending several nights in the park.
Their case is but one example of how the French government’s approach to the unprecedented influx of migrants has been to turn up the repression, activists say.
According to the EU’s Frontex agency, more than 22,000 people were intercepted crossing into Italy from January to March, a 99 per cent increase on the number taking the same route in the same period last year.
In many ways, groups living on the streets are the lucky ones. Some 1,387 Libyan and Tunisian migrants drowned trying to make the trip to Europe between January and March, UNITED, a European NGO, told Al Jazeera.
Pascale Boistard, associate for integration and foreigners from outside the EU for the Paris city council, told Al Jazeera that France’s national government was neglecting its legal responsibility to assist the migrants.
Boistard argues that the Socialist-controlled city authorities are doing everything they can to help thousands of Tunisian migrants who travelled to France, including providing food and assistance to many of them.
The municipality has provided housing to some 310 of the recent Tunisian migrants, Boistard said, even though this is something the national government should be dealing with.
“It’s the state and the government that is doing nothing,” Boistard, a member of France’s Socialist Party, said.
“On April 22, we wrote to Claude Gueant [France’s interior minister and immigration minister] to alert him of the humanitarian situation. His response was to say that we should arrest the Tunisians.”
Gueant told the Paris municipal authorities that no assistance should be offered to the Tunisians migrants, because, according to him, they were in France illegally – including those who had been issued with temporary residency permits by the Italian authorities.
“We are in a situation where the migrants are constantly being arrested, then released immediately after,” Boistard said.
Boistard added that the government was ignoring an agreement President Nicolas Sarkozy had signed with Ben Ali in 2008, under which France agreed to offer assistance to 9,000 Tunisian migrants a year to help them return home.
Since January, the government has frozen the processing of repatriation requests, a move which is further exacerbating the humanitarian situation, Boistard told Al Jazeera.
In the interest of maintaining the government’s image as being “tough” on immigration, nothing is being done to help the migrants, she argued.
In the case of the Botzaris group, she denied that the municipal authorities had anything to do with the request to evict them. The decision was made either by police, or came via the interior ministry, she said.
“The Tunisians in the building were evicted at the request of the [Tunisian] embassy. We weren’t informed by the police that the eviction was going to take place.”
“I find that France is not living up to its history, and the values that it embodies,” she said.
Neither the immigration ministry or the interior ministry, both run by Gueant, responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment. The Paris police department also refused to comment.
Bertrand Delanoë, Paris’ Socialist mayor, has set aside $1.2mn for Tunisian migrants in Paris. Activists working with the Botzaris group, however, say they have yet to see this any of this emergency fund go towards supporting these migrants.
At the time of writing, no solution for accomadation has been found, and few French NGOs working with the homeless had showed up to offer assistance.
“The organistions say there’s still a problem and that the money is not enough,” explained Da Silva.
Politicians in Tunisia, busy preparing for the October election, have largely been silent on the plight of their compatriots.
“These political parties, they’ll be governing the country in a few months. Normally, they should be intervening with the French authorities on behalf of these migrants,” Gargouri said.
The Democratic Forum for Work and Freedoms (Ettakatol-FDTL), a leftwing Tunisian opposition party, questioned this explanation, calling on the Tunisian embassy to publically clarify “the real reasons for its eviction request”.
Mustapha Ben Jaafar, the party’s general-secretary, wrote to Sarkozy, saying that is was hard to understand why the young people, “neither delinquents or terrorists … should be hunted down like criminals and abuses simply because of their nationality, in a friendly country that has also told them that it was the birthplace of the Declaration of Human Rights”.
In contrast to the official indifference, a vibrant social media campaign has emerged in support of the “Botzaris” migrants.
Thanks to a handful of devoted activists, supporters have been able to follow Twitter and a website set up for the group for constant news, photos and video of the group’s difficulties and to respond to calls for solidarity or advice.
The conversation taking place on Twitter, under the hashtag #Botzaris36 was the second highest trending topic in France within days of the group’s eviction.
The nightly police raids have had their effect, however, and most of the group have abandoned their attempts to sleep in the shelter of the Buttes Chaumount Park.
“We’ve suffered many difficulties: with the police, the French state, even with the Tunisian state,” Karim said. “Now we must keeping going until the end, that’s all we can do. What other choice is there?”
Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @YasmineRyan