By Nellie Peyton
On June 17, the French government announced a new plan for dealing with the influx of migrants that has recently overwhelmed the country, along with the rest of Europe. What prompted the initiative was clear. France had been criticized, mainly by its own citizens, for dispatching police to clear out migrant camps in Paris, most notably under a railroad bridge near La Chapelle on June 2. Some of the roughly 360 people who had been living there — mostly men from Sudan and Eritrea — were offered no accommodations but were evicted repeatedly and with force in the days that followed.
In at least one instance, riot squads used tear gas to disperse activists, and were photographed dragging and pushing men into buses. Protests ensued, and the government acted hastily. A new plan would soon be announced, said Prime Minister Manuel Valls, to improve the city’s management of migrants. But his statement, as reported in Le Monde, indicates that the wellbeing of the migrants themselves was a low priority. The new plan would permit France to “avoid the formation of precarious camps that are unworthy of our country and that pose sanitation and security problems,” Valls said.
The plan itself, elaborated by Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve a day later, represents a half-hearted effort at best. Its three goals, according to Cazeneuve, are to better welcome asylum seekers, better shelter them, and fight more adamantly against illegal immigration, in part by doubling down on deportations. As French journalist Maryline Baumard wrote, it is a skillfully mixed cocktail aimed to please both sides of the political spectrum: “a dose of humanity and a dose of expulsion.”
What the plan is not likely to do is significantly improve conditions for the majority of migrants now living in flimsy tents on the streets of Paris, and the thousands more making treacherous journeys to join them.
“I think that the additional places are a first step, but it will be insufficient,” said Julien Molesin, President of the Human Rights League of Paris. Cazeneuve’s plan is to create 9,500 new places to accommodate refugees and asylum seekers over the next two years, in addition to the approximately 8,000 places that France has proposed since 2012. But these numbers pale in comparison to demand. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated that more than 300,000 refugees were already residing in France at the end of 2014, and about 60,000 of those had pending requests for asylum.
The deportation policy, Molesin said, is equally unsatisfactory. Cazeneuve has clearly that France cannot welcome migrants who are not fleeing persecution, but merely want to live a better life in Europe. In 2014, France rejected almost 70 percent of requests for asylum. Next year, Cazeneuve plans to double the number of people who will be given a small amount of return aid in exchange for “voluntarily” leaving the EU. He is also in favor of using “hot spots” on the Italian coast where European border agencies would identify migrants at their point of entry and turn away those who do not show “manifest need of protection.”
France desperately needs to revise its migrant policy, but in order for effective changes to be made, it will first need a shift in attitude. The politicians responsible for the violent confrontations between migrants and police in Paris last month seem to think that if they can sweep the migrants out of sight, this undesired population will disappear. It is not the first time the country has displayed such callousness and flawed logic. In 2010 and 2012, French police regularly entered Roma encampments at dawn to disperse the occupants before, in some cases, bulldozing their tents. France is right to want to get migrants out of such precarious situations, but not without finding them a better place to go.
According to Molesin, three areas of action are equally urgent. First, France must enlarge its policy of housing and social assistance beyond the meager provisions Cazeneuve has proposed. With shelters full, France has taken to offering some migrants rooms in hotels for short periods of time, after which they must return to the streets. But to accommodate people in the tens of thousands, the government must be a little more creative. Germany, for example, which last year received the highest number of asylum applicants in the EU, has allocated millions of euros to constructing housing in disused industrial sites, barracks, and blocks of shipping containers, and even has a website where people can sign up to host refugees. France too should consider this migration wave worthy of innovative thinking and large-scale solutions.
Second, France must improve and accelerate the administrative process of granting asylum. Currently, even refugees who have escaped war-torn countries can expect to live on the streets for four to six months while they await an initial decision, and the full procedure takes up to two years. The country has been debating a bill on asylum reform since a 2014 parliamentary report concluded that the system was “in crisis,” but it is unclear if or when the bill will be passed. In the meantime, the government should aim to improve its current system as much as possible. According to Molesin, some of the problems are as simple as the fact that associations dealing with refugees don’t have enough Arabic speakers and translators. This, of all things, should be an easy fix.
In addition to these measures, France should accept more asylum seekers — not only to help shoulder the EU’s collective burden, but also to give refugees already living in France the status they need to get on their feet. Many asylum seekers whose applications are rejected do not leave the country, so denying them the right to work and obtain housing is counterproductive.
The response of French citizens to the government’s treatment of migrants has been encouraging. Many have marched to show solidarity, and political parties have drafted petitions to the Paris mayor and police chief requesting better social services and legal aid. The news of the expulsions also revealed that hundreds of migrants living in Paris receive food, clothing, and legal advice from local volunteers, in the absence of government assistance. But this responsibility should not fall solely on kind neighbors.
As Molesin said, “Solidarity still exists, but we must bring it onto the political stage.”
Nellie Peyton is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Jeanne Menj]