“There were no alarms. The building was old and dilapidated. We just heard ‘Fire! Fire,’ and we had to go down.”
That was how one young girl described the horrific events on Friday morning last week as fire swept through a Paris apartment block housing African immigrants.
Seventeen people, most of them children, were asphyxiated or burnt to death in the blaze. Some 30 others were injured as they ran or leapt from the building.
The block in south east Paris housed about 130 people, 100 of them children. Most were from Mali, with others from Senegal, Ghana and Tunisia.
A second fire in Paris killed a further seven Africans on Tuesday this week.
It is not yet known if the fires were started deliberately, but the tragedies have highlighted the plight of immigrants in the French capital.
About 20 percent of the population of the city come from outside France — roughly the same proportion as Londoners born outside Britain.
Just as in Britain, immigrants, many of them highly skilled, carry out some of the most menial and worst paid jobs, and live in substandard accommodation.
Organisations working with the homeless and poor say that over 110,000 poor Parisians, many of them African immigrants, have unanswered requests for low cost housing.
Oumar Cissé, a 72 year old from Mali, lived in the apartment block that caught fire last week. Like others in the building he was not a recent arrival in France — most of the inhabitants had residence permits and jobs.
The building was supposed to be a temporary dwelling for immigrant families, but Oumar had lived there for 15 years.
He said the building was “unfit for habitation”, that it was overrun with rats and mice, and that the walls, stairs and electrical wiring were all dilapidated.
Oumar was lucky to survive the fire. He said he saw people as they “jumped out of the windows. They didn’t care about dying… It was horrific.
“We only survived because my son soaked our door with water.”
The Paris fires are not the first to hit immigrants this year. In April a fire in a budget hotel killed 24.
The demands for better housing and better treatment for immigrants are longstanding. In 1991 immigrants expelled from houses and made homeless camped out for four months in makeshift tents.
Many of those caught up in the tragedy on Friday of last week were once residents in this tent village, located near to the building that caught fire.
Immigrant and Sans Papier groups, which represent immigrants without legal documents, have held protests.
On Friday of last week over 400 immigrants started a demonstration at the site of the building on Boulevard Vincent Auriol.
French housing minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, was surrounded by protesters at the site of the fire. They demanded that the government take action over housing.
A second demonstration took place last Sunday.
Many of the Sans Papiers are demanding that empty buildings are taken over to provide housing for immigrants.
They also want to see a programme of house building.
SOS Racisme, a French anti-racist group, called for measures to “house foreign families on our soil with dignity and decency”.
Former health minister and co-founder of Médecins sans Frontières, Bernard Kouchner, called for the country to take collective responsibility for such disasters.
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