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"France is implementing an ambitious asylum policy."

"France is implementing an ambitious asylum policy."

Published on March 10, 2016
Op-ed by Minister of Interior Bernard Cazeneuve, published in French newspaper "Libération"
Paris - March 9, 2016

I am convinced, like Etienne Balibar, that only a rigorous European policy in keeping with our values can today allow us to control the unprecedented migration crisis confronting our continent. But I cannot let what he has written—that France is responsible for the difficulties Europe is encountering as it tackles the crisis, or that it has thwarted the efforts deployed by Germany to resolve them—go unanswered.

Firstly, the “Juncker Plan” to relocate migrants arriving in Greece and Italy, which Etienne Balibar rightly welcomes, is nothing more than a taking into consideration of the proposals which France, in August 2014, convinced Germany to present with it to the European institutions and its partners. To this end, I for one paid a round of visits to Europe’s main capitals from the summer of 2014. Consequently, far from wanting the plan to fail, France itself laid the foundations for it, in full agreement with Germany.

The proposals which constitute this plan have always been based simultaneously on the desire to increase controls on the European Union’s external borders, provide assistance to the migrants—whom the people-smugglers expose to death at sea –, more effectively take in refugees, distribute them in a balanced, transparent way within the various member states and provide for immigrants to be returned to their country in a dignified, humane way when they are ineligible for the right of asylum.

The agreement on these principles between France and Germany does not, obviously, mean that differences cannot emerge now and again over the migration crisis. But these do not create a “demarcation line”. The French President and the German Chancellor repeated on Friday 5 March that our two countries are working in the same spirit and with the same desire to resolve the crisis. And it is ultimately this agreement which protects us from the “end of the European Union” which Etienne Balibar fears.

Secondly, I must protest once again at the groundless argument, picked up again in that article, that France is somehow falling short when it comes to the right of asylum. Admittedly, it is not a country “of first entry” like Italy or Greece.

Admittedly, the refugee flows are heading first and foremost towards Austria and Germany, for geographical as much as economic reasons. But in 2015 France adopted the most ambitious asylum reform in its recent history. Last year, it accepted more than 80,000 asylum applicants, i.e. many more than the United Kingdom, for example. It is the only country which has established a special protection mechanism for certain particularly vulnerable victims of Daesh [so-called ISIL], such as the members of the religious minorities who are refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Finally, it has pledged to take in 30,000 relocated refugees over two years as a way of showing solidarity with the countries of first entry. Even though only a few hundred of them have arrived in France to date, this is not because of a lack of attractiveness on our country’s part, let alone a deliberate lack of commitment. It is quite simply because refugee reception and distribution mechanisms in “hot spots” still operate only very imperfectly. What’s more, I myself paid an on-the-spot visit to the island of Lesbos a few weeks ago to assess these difficulties and propose to the Greek authorities our assistance in order to resolve them quickly. But despite these failings, France is the country which has taken in, to date, the largest number of relocated refugees: 148 of them arrived on French soil from Greece on Monday 7 March, and will be welcomed in asylum applicant reception centres in several French regions.

France is also very actively participating in the fight against people-smuggling rings which exploit migrants’ distress and put them in great danger. In this respect, a French military ship will set sail this week from Toulon to take part in the Atlantic Alliance operations to combat unlawful trafficking in the Aegean Sea, a crossing point for thousands of migrants.

Finally, no informed person could write that the plan to dismantle the Calais “jungle” will have the effect of “driving hundreds of desperate people back onto the roads”, because the action which began in Calais on Monday 29 February, with the judge’s approval, has no objective other than to provide shelter for people in situations of great distress, exposed to the cold, living in mud and subjected to the violence of the people-smugglers, who try hard to extort money from them for an unlikely and dangerous illegal planned crossing of the Channel.

None of these migrants is destined to be “driven back onto the road”. On the contrary, one or several solutions to provide them with shelter are being proposed to every one of them, on a voluntary basis, by social workers, with the help of voluntary organizations. So there are 400 places in the Jules Ferry reception centres for the most vulnerable people—women and unaccompanied minors. In this way, for those who wish to remain in Calais in the immediate future, 500 places exist in heated sécurité civile [emergency services] tents and 1,500 others have been created within the “temporary reception centre”. Finally, everyone who envisages asking for asylum is being offered a place in one of the 102 reception and guidance centres all over the country, where the relevant voluntary organizations are offering them guidance on what steps they take. More than 2,900 migrants chose to leave a makeshift camp to go to one of the reception centres, contradicting the too-swift analysis that they would reject en masse the prospect of asking for asylum in France.

Given this unprecedented migration crisis, every one of us—politicians, civil servants, journalists, intellectuals—can no doubt usefully do some soul-searching. But it is difficult for me to accept, without protest, the supposedly most clear-sighted and most rigorous minds distorting the policy which has been implemented by France for nearly two years, forgetting that it has constantly worked with Germany to tackle the migration crisis, ignoring the fact that it is implementing an ambitious asylum policy, and questioning, against all the evidence, the strength of its European commitment.

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