In January 2014, 30 Syrian refugees were welcomed to the city of Le Havre. As promised in a statement by the President of the Republic last October, 470 additional Syrian refugees should follow this initial group during 2014, to be received in a diverse variety of locations. At a time when more than 100 European NGOs and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) are calling on Europe to act for Syrian refugees (www.helpsyriasrefugees.eu), the arrival of Syrian refugees into France is a concrete example of solidarity and protection that Europe can offer.
Despite showing strong political commitment in the Syrian conflict, to date France has not been perceived as a country of asylum for Syrians. In 2013, only 1300 Syrian nationals sought asylum in France and, even if there has been a dramatic increase since the beginning of the conflict, Syria still ranks 17th on the list of countries of origin of asylum seekers in France. This resettlement and humanitarian admission programme is thus an indication that France has finally recognised the dramatic plight of Syrians.
Syrian refugees instead of others?
The October statement of François Hollande was naturally rather vague, and left the national government to implement the programme with reference to the existing legal framework for resettlement and refugee protection in France. In that regard, the Ministry of the Interior appears to have narrowed the scope of the Presidential statement by admitting part of the 500 Syrian refugees that France has committed to receive via the pre-existing annual resettlement programme. Established in 2008 with the signing of an agreement between the French government and UNHCR, this programme commits the French authorities to consider one hundred dossier cases for resettlement each year, and the 30 Syrian refugees that arrived in January did so via this programme. Using part of this national resettlement quota for Syrian refugees rather than admitting the entire group into newly created places therefore effectively reduces the number of places for the many thousands of other refugees in need of resettlement around the world.
Nonetheless, another part of the 500 Syrian refugees will be transferred to France via a new, ad-hoc humanitarian admission scheme. According to the little information disclosed by the Ministry of the Interior to date, refugees received via this programme should be granted the same legal status - that of recognised refugees - as other resettled refugees. In a new development for France, the French Office for Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA) will be carry out refugee status determination (RSD) outside of the French territory in Syria's neighbouring countries. It is thus envisaged that OFPRA will travel to Lebanon and Jordan from April to start the refugee status determination and selection for the humanitarian admission programme.
A pilot programme that brings a more substantial resettlement programme ?
The Ministry of the Interior is actually designing an innovative scheme for Syrian refugees that seems to address the weaknesses of the current resettlement programme. The Ministry has, for example, has appointed a named official responsible for the coordination of humanitarian admission. Under the current resettlement programme, refugees are selected solely 'on paper’ (ie - on a dossier basis), which has been a relatively slow procedure. Selection missions may be an opportunity to expedite both the refugee status determination and selection processes, which could ultimately speed up departures of Syrian refugees from the region for France. Moreover, the authorities are planning a better organisation of initial reception and housing conditions in France, and will guarantee access to rights - including a residence permit and health services - from the moment refugees arrive. Syrian refugees will be hosted at arrival facilities managed by the civil society organisation Adoma, where they will receive social guidance and assistance. In another new development, the Ministry has contacted municipalities ahead of refugees arriving to discuss their participation in the programme, including arrangements to secure available housing. Although municipal elections, due to take place in late March 2014, mean fewer municipalities than hoped for have engaged in these discussions, the enhanced coordination of stakeholders in the resettlement process and the direct call to French municipalities to commit to the protection of refugees are positive steps.
We therefore hope that the French humanitarian admission programme will provide a very welcome opportunity to strengthen and expand the French annual resettlement programme for the future.
Matthieu Tardis, Head of the Secretariat General at France Terre d’Asile