We have enough to deal with at home! France and the refugee crisis

Demonstrierende für eine Willkommenskultur in Toulouse, 5. September 2015
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Demonstrierende für eine Willkommenskultur in Toulouse, 5. September 2015

The lack of a consensus culture in political life provides an explanation of France’s cautiousness towards the refugee crisis. The government cannot find support for a more open refugee policy from the right wing. At the same time, when it comes specifically to asylum, more has been done since 2012 than in the five previous years.

From the death of 1,200 persons in the Mediterranean Sea in April 2015 to the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016, the EU has been facing major challenges that have shaken the very core of the European construction. Where does France stand in the refugee crisis? Where do the French authorities place themselves between the closed-door response in Hungary and the welcoming policy in Germany? Actually, it is difficult to tell.

30,000 refugees and no more

The so-called refugee crisis has had little impact in France. Some 70,600 persons applied for asylum in 2015, a 20 percent increase compared to 2014. This does not mean that the refugee crisis has not been high on the political and media agendas. It certainly has but it has remained a remote issue for most people. France was late to understand that the situation from Greece to Sweden was out of control. The government rejected the European Commission proposal to disperse 40,000 asylum seekers in May 2015. At that time, it considered that the country had already taken on more than its share of the burden. It had to face reality, however, and finally joined Germany in supporting a European relocation scheme, to go hand-to-hand with the establishment of ‘hotspots’ (to process incoming refugees), a longstanding French demand.

Soon, it appeared that no further commitment could be expected from France besides increased border controls. Various statements from different members of the Government, including the Prime Minister’s controversial statement in Munich, seemed to display contradictory points of view among French decision-makers. These statements were primarily directed to the domestic political debate. They did not question that France had only agreed to take in 30,000 asylum seekers under the temporary relocation scheme and will not take more.  

The everlasting asylum crisis

The lack of a consensus culture in political life provides an explanation of France’s cautiousness towards the refugee crisis. The government cannot find support for a more open refugee policy from the right wing. Moreover, the rise of the far-right Front National seems to paralyse any attempt to have a peaceful political debate on issues such as migration.

In contrast to the former head of State Sarkozy, François Hollande has never used migration as a major political topic. At the same time, when it comes specifically to asylum, more has been done since 2012 than in the five previous years. The French asylum system drifted from 2007 to 2012 and was close to collapse because of lengthy procedures and lack of accommodation for asylum seekers. A consultation was launched in 2013. It convened stakeholders from various authorities, local governments, Parliament and NGOs and led to the adoption of a bill in July 2015.

In addition, there is a roadmap planning to open almost 40,000 reception places for asylum seekers by 2017. Ironically, the refugee crisis has been a useful tool for the government. Attempting a reform, whose aim is to bring the French asylum system up to EU standards, while the rest of Europe is facing an unprecedented flow of refugees is quite a feat on it own, but pushing for further solidarity with the rest of Europe would have been a bold move the government did not dare take - even if many French citizens were able to demonstrate empathy for the refugees’ fate.

Calais: a symbol of European failure

The situation of migrants stranded by the North Sea hoping to reach British shores is not linked to the refugee crisis. As a matter of fact, this situation has been ongoing since the late 1990s. In many aspects, Calais is the consequence of the failure of European asylum and migration policy. France is one of the first we can blame. The authorities have long ignored that most migrants there have a legitimate right to seek protection but they were treated as irregular migrants, who did not even wish to stay in France. When the authorities understood that asylum could be a useful way to get the refugees out of Calais, the migrants then found themselves having to face a flawed French asylum system and the Dublin Regulation. The vast majority of migrants in Calais entered the EU through another country, where they could not find proper conditions to settle and as a consequence moved on. Calais is also a symbol of the failure to provide equal access to protection in all Member States. Finally, Calais is living proof of the terrible impact the outer Schengen border has had on the EU.

Calais is, in a nutshell, an example of how European society is facing migration: activists, volunteers, institutionalized NGOs and humanitarian organisations all play their part alongside a local population, whose tolerance is wearing thin. Finally, Calais tells us a lot about the lives of migrants in Europe: left in slums, in inhuman conditions and to whom nobody has yet offered a solution.

This article is part of our dossier "Crossing borders – refugee and asylum policy in Europe".