No Asylum Found
Many of the restrictions of France in lockdown hit refugees at the edge of Paris most severely: access to basic medication and application for asylum are extremely limited, and aid agencies are sounding the alarm. For them, the culprit is quickly identified: President Emmanuel Macron had already begun to take tougher action against migration and immigrants before the coronavirus crisis started.
In the unadorned industrial area from the 18th arrondissement of Paris, the aid organisation Utopia 56 has set up its headquarters. There, a small team coordinates the aid missions. They travel through the areas where most street-bound refugees live to hand out donations. "Every morning, we distribute a small breakfast. But we also hand out clothing, hygiene products, tents and blankets. At night we drive to the places in Seine-Saint-Denis and Paris where many people live on the streets," says Véga Levaillant of Utopia 56.
But since the Corona crisis, the help system has been severely limited even at Utopia 56. France had a strict curfew from March 16th to May 11th, during which the volunteers had to stay at home. "We lost a lot of people. All the volunteers on community service were no longer allowed to help outside," says Levaillant.
A living under harsh conditions
In few European capitals is the geographical segregation of wealth as clear as in Paris. The social hotspots with many people at the subsistence level are located in a circle on the outer edges in and around the French capital. This is also where most of the refugees have been living for several years - often under motorway bridges or in collective accommodation.
Access to sanitary facilities remains poor even with the initial easing of restrictions such as leaving home within a radius of 100 kilometres without the requirement of a certificate, Levaillant reports: "Many public toilets remain closed. The homeless hardly get access to clean water.
Even before the coronavirus began to spread, President Emmanuel Macron ordered the dismantling of certain makeshift camps. In November 2019, police forces began large-scale evacuations of refugee camps in northern Paris. Several thousand asylum seekers lived there. Many ended up on the streets, families included. During the curfew period, evictions were accelerated according to Utopia 56.
In France, the state of emergency is not a new political phenomenon. As a result of the terrorist attacks since 2015, this state of emergency was imposed several times. The current health emergency gives the state authorities more possibilities to dissolve larger crowds of people - with the added reason of health precaution.
The new rhetoric of the French president
Emmanuel Macron had already announced a tougher migration policy last fall in line with the local elections. In a newspaper interview, he warned against growing parallel communities by people who isolate from society and use religion to stand against the values of the French Republic. Unforgotten are his words to radio station Europe 1 when he said that France must "not become too attractive for migrants.” The number of asylum applications in France worries him. In the last two years it had risen by around 20%. The first country of origin is Afghanistan. A third of applications from the Hindu Kush has been rejected last year.
The Prefecture of Paris stresses their care towards asylum seekers. "In general, the state remains particularly vigilant in ensuring that all homeless people are offered accommodation solutions. The state provides accommodation for 131,000 homeless people every evening in the Ile-de-France region, including more than 7,300 new spots since the 16th of March," states the city hall.
The aid organization Terre d'asile runs 34 refugee shelters throughout France. During expeditions in the north of Paris, employees of the aid organisation, who were allowed to stay outside with a special permit during curfew, were able to meet those refugees in the streets who remained homeless. "The situation on the street is precarious. So measures were taken from day one of containment,” says Pierre Henry, the head of Terre d'asile. “Before March 16th, more than 2500 people were on the streets. Today there are still a few hundred."
"Where the economy needs help, it is necessary to grant people the right to stay."
The majority of the refugees have been accommodated in various housing situations. According to the government, France has room for a total of 85,000 asylum seekers. Many are now in apartments, others in collective centres, including sport halls. Some also live in occupied houses. "Here, the rules of social distancing cannot always be observed," says Pierre Henry.
Raids in small camps
The refugees on the street often live in tents. During evictions, the police are not squeamish about the makeshift dwellings. Levaillant of Utopia 56 criticizes: "The homeless tell us about "raids" in small camps, where the police tear down tents with knives. They throw blankets and personal belongings into the garbage."
In the north of Paris, there were clashes between the police and local residents during curfew. In the Seine-Saint-Denis department in particular, intensive care units are overloaded and respiratory equipment is in short supply. Does a refugee seriously ill with COVID-19 then have access to medical care? The latest migration reform makes it more difficult for asylum seekers to see a doctor in case of illness. In the first three months of the asylum application's examination, reimbursement of simple medical examinations are sometimes rejected, reports Utopia 56. Prime Minister Philippe justified the reduction in health care in November in response to the "abuse of the social security system."
Sluggish resumption of asylum applications
Terre d'asile helps refugees to file their asylum application. However, mid-March, the French authorities suspended the reopening of asylum applications indefinitely: "They are normally carried out in the individual windows of the public institution, the OFII (French office of integration and immigration). But since there is a health emergency, the first priority is to protect workers, most of whom are absent. Therefore, the registration of the asylum application has been suspended," says Henry of Terre d'asile. It is precisely those people without a current application who get into trouble, Henry says: "For people who are not registered, of course no one will refuse to treat them in an emergency. But they have no access to medical checks, which is the best protection for everyone."
With the first easing of restrictions, debates on a way out of the economic standstill are also beginning in France. Henry calls for asylum seekers to be taken into account: "The real problem is now coming up: I expect the government to be very pragmatic. Where the economy needs help, it is necessary to grant people the right to stay. They can help to get the economy going again - without any restrictions."
The French government plans to double testing capacity to almost 100,000 tests per day by June. The unregistered refugees in the collective centres will not be among the people tested. This is one of the reasons why a group of French MPs is calling for all refugees to be granted a temporary right to stay - at least during the health emergency which has just been extended by the government by two months. The proposal, which comes mainly from the ranks of the left-wing group, is modelled on Portugal's: "We are asking for access to care and for financial aid. This is a public health measure that protects everyone, as our Portuguese friends have done." There is still little to suggest that the situation in France is also easing for asylum seekers as long as access to medical care and shelters for all undocumented refugees remain limited.