OPINION | Syrians in Paris : Rights, Refuge and Reforms by Tiffany Shakespeare
IndraStra Global

OPINION | Syrians in Paris : Rights, Refuge and Reforms by Tiffany Shakespeare

By Tiffany Shakespeare 

Refugees at Keleti Railway Station, Budapest

Describing France as a “big prison”, Mohamed, 26, a Syrian asylum seeker, is trapped in protracted legal limbo. He arrived in Paris in September 2014, and a year later is still waiting to attain refugee status. He is unable to travel or work, and as his ISIS captors in Syria were French nationals, he does not know who to trust. His wife and one-year-old son, born after he fled, are stuck in Damascus also waiting so that they can join him under family reunification laws. Some wait for over 2 years for their refugee status, and Mohamed is terrified that his family will be killed by heavy bombing in Damascus before they are allowed to join him.

Mohamed is one of over 12 million people affected by the four year conflict, which has claimed over a quarter of a million lives since March 2011. He is one of four million refugees fleeing Syria, one of over 300,000 applying for asylum in Europe, and one of over 6,000 applying in France. Whilst France boasts a strong tradition of human rights, promoting Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, has the country really lived up to its image during the Syrian refugee crisis, especially given Syria’s status as a former French mandate? Is France really a welcoming haven doing its utmost to be #AvecLesSyriens?

Sabreen Al-Rassace, coordinator of Syrian political asylum centre, Association Revivre, one ofmany NGOs helping refugees, insists that France has a long way to go before assuming its title as a country of les Droits de l’Homme. This is due to the cumbersome administrative processes that Al-Rassace describes as “inhumane”. Whilst Syrian acceptance rates are high, with 96 percent of applications accepted, compared with 22 percent acceptance rates of all asylum applications (according to 2013 data), claiming asylum in France is a long and difficult process.

The procedure

Asylum seekers must register at the police station and request a temporary residence permit on asylum grounds. For this, they must provide an address. Once processed, the asylum seeker has 21 days to complete their application for the Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA). OFPRA is responsible for examining, refusing, or granting refugee status, a ten-year residency permit, or subsidiary protection, a one-year permit that can be renewed after reassessment of the situation in the country of origin. OFPRA also decide whether the applicant should be examined under an “accelerated” or “regular” procedure. Accelerated procedure is for those coming from countries deemed to be “safe”, constituting nearly 1/3 of all asylum origin countries. Regular procedure, which has a greater application acceptance rate, is for nationals coming from “unsafe” countries, according to the French government.

The National Court of Asylum (CNDA) is responsible for decisions on appeals against rejected asylum applications, and appeals must be lodged within 30 days of the OFPRA decision. The Office for Immigration and Integration (OFFI) is responsible for accommodation allocation. Under French law, asylum seekers are entitled to accommodation in a state reception centre through the Welcoming Centre for Asylum Seekers (CADA). Here, they should receive material, social, and administrative support while their asylum claim is being processed, asrequired by EU law.

A system in need of reform

The French asylum procedure is long and over-subscribed. In interviews with Association Revivre, Jesuit Refugee Service (JSR) and various asylum lawyers, two pressing problems have frequently been mentioned: the lengthy process of acquiring refugee status, and the lack of housing when asylum seekers arrive. In 2014, the average time period for OFPRA to make a decision was 195 days and many asylum seekers, including families, are left destitute with no alternative but to sleep on the streets. Various temporary “squats” have developed in northern Paris, including sprawling cities of tents and make-shift structures under the railway at La Chapelle, and Saint Ouin.

Al-Rassace says that the inadequacies of the system are greatly exacerbated by the fact that asylum seekers must first provide an address when they register at the police station. Whilst some asylum seekers, like Mohamed, can register with an “individual address” (in his case, a distant aunt) others have no contacts in the country, and must use the address of France’s public bodies. These are France Land of Asylum (FTDA) for individual adults, or Coordination of the Home for Asylum Seeking Families (CAFDA) for families. Using FTDA or CAFDA prolongs the asylum procedure by another couple of months. Omar, 23, a Syrian who arrived in Europe by boat in February having crossed the entirety of Macedonia by foot, has registered with FTDA but is yet to be allocated accommodation. Fortunately, he has been able to find shelter through the Welcome Network Initiative, which provides monthly lodging with French host families.

The French asylum system has previously been criticised as being in breach of France’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. In September 2014, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muizniek, denounced the deficiencies of the asylum procedure, drafting a 50-page report at the beginning of this year.

The right reforms?

Reforms of the French asylum system were already underway by December 2014, and were promulgated by Parliament on 29 July 2015. Whilst a full description of proposed reforms can be found in Annex 2 of the Asylum Information Database 2015 Country Report, the general aim is to shorten the length of the procedures from an average of over two years to nine months by 2017.
However, shortening the length of procedures comes at a cost. Eve Shahshahani from Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT) points out that reducing the length of the process often has negative repercussions on equal opportunities for asylum seekers, where the “presumption of fraud is primary”. She insists judges, lawyers and the government, even with the best intentions, will not have the “time nor the means to study all applications in depth”.
Another focus of the changes was reforming France’s “accelerated” procedure, for those coming from a “safe” country of origin. Applications will now be examined by a single generalist judge instead of three. In an interview with JRS France concerns were raised over the presence of only one judge at the Court, leading to a “risk of error and a lack of good justice”: “the judge will have to make a decision very quickly, within 5 weeks, which may affect the quality of the judge’s decisions if she/he has many cases”.
Similarly, Muizniek points out that as in any asylum system, the “automatic nature of the classification” of “requests by nationals of states appearing on the list of ‘safe countries of origin’” remains a considerable worry. This is problematic as even in those countries deemed safe overall, there are often individuals, such as those in minority groups or LGBTQ communities who are certainly not “safe”. Refugee status should be granted in recognition of individual circumstances, not a general risk.

Despite the revisions of French asylum law being a positive sign overall (for example, a lawyeris now provided during a refugee’s OFPRA interview) further efforts are necessary to ensure asylum seekers’ rights are properly protected. Association Réfugié-Cosi insists the draft law should include further amendments, in order to:
  • guarantee effective remedies in detention centres;
  • preserve the quality of the National Court of Asylum’s examination and decision-making process by stipulating a longer time limit to examine appeals in the accelerated procedure;
  • harmonise services offered by reception facilities for asylum seekers and provide accommodation together with legal support to all asylum seekers.

Syrians in Paris

Al-Rassace explains that the French asylum experience is traumatising, especially compared to Germany, Sweden, and Belgium. Mohamed voiced his frustration at the system, explaining that a friend of his, who left Turkey by boat two months after him, has acquired his refugee status in Germany and has already received a home, a bank card, and around EUR 450 per month. Omar is also suspended in a period of legal limbo. After three months of waiting, he was told by OFPRA last week that they have delayed his status determination for another six months, without providing a reason.

Whilst Syrian experiences vary, all are entangled in the complex and protracted bureaucratic web of the French asylum system. Confronted with legal loopholes, organisational inefficiencies, and increasing islamophobia among the French public, many do not feel France, despite President François Holland’s involvement in leading the European response to the refugee crisis, is a country of “les Droits de l’Homme”.

While these two young Syrians wait for their asylum claims to be processed, Omar is involved with the conflict from afar, coordinating Syrian doctors on the frontline. Mohamed, however, has stopped all of his online political activism, fearful of his wife and child in Damascus being targeted by Assad.

About The Author:

Tiffany Shakespeare is a fourth-year Anthropology student at University College London. She has just returned from Sciences Po, Paris, where she conducted research on Syrian refugees in Paris and their involvement in homeland politics. Thomson Reuters ResearcherID : M-9616-2015

This article was first published at Rights in Exile Newsletter on Oct 1, 2015

AIDN: 001-10-2015-0313