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Improving Discourse and Perceptions of Asylum-Seekers and Refugees in Paris: Recommendations for Civic Groups, Local Government, and French Citizens

A) Background

In the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions and continued civil conflicts that are particularly rife across North Africa and the Horn of Africa, over 40,000 refugees fled to the borders of the European Union.  The influx of asylum-seekers sparked anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies across the European Union such as the declaration of a state of emergency in Italy and tightening of controls along the Italian-French border, while providing an opportunity for xenophobic populist arguments across Western Europe.  

The most dramatic response to the refugees was the proposal offered by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy (recently accepted by the EU Commission), which included amongst its recommendations:

  • the extension of the European Union’s Frontex police and its powers; 
  • the criminalization of refugees as ‘illegal emigrants’ upon departure from their home states; 
  • a process of expedited deportation from host nations; 
  • the placement of an increased burden on neighboring countries to help fight emigration. 

These responses risk undermining the freedom of movement principle that is fundamental to the European Union, refugee protections granted by international humanitarian law, and the basic procedural rights and survival needs of all persons on French territory.

This policy brief aims to mitigate the perpetuation of anti-immigrant discourse resulting from Sarkozy and Berlusconi’s recommendations. The tone of the public debate creates the illusion of a zero-sum game that pits the interests of the State against those of asylum-seekers. This discourse, built on the concept of the so-called “European fortress,” marginalizes refugees from the rest of society and prevents their access to basic services such as shelter, clothing and food.  

Through first-hand conversations with a group of homeless refugees who arrived in Paris from Tunisia, we identified some of the challenges faced by such refugees – challenges which will be exacerbated by the Berlusconi-Sarkozy proposal. Refugees have minimal access to information and resources necessary to help them survive and care for themselves.  They are not aware of their legal position or the possibilities for legalization, and they do not receive material support beyond one meal per week.  Refugees are also not being included in the policy formation process, as a result of political fragmentation. With a constant fear of reprisal and deportation, these people have a strong desire to disperse into smaller, less visible groups, leading to their disempowerment within European society.

B) French Context

Government. France is a member of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which states that all people have the right to seek and enjoy asylum when persecuted in their home country. The government, which is responsible for providing refugees with basic living accommodations, has instead begun the process of closing down existing shelters which has led to more visible homelessness. 

Without the right kind of engagement effort, this increased visibility of refugees living in the streets can inspire hostility from local communities (Jeudi Noir, Les Enfants de Don Quichote, and personal interviews).  

Politics. During France’s government-sponsored debate on national identity in 2009, the forums were used by right-wing voters to blame crime, unemployment, and other social ills on recently arrived French immigrants. By encouraging anti-immigration rhetoric through this national debate, Sarkozy also helped to mobilize the extreme-right National Front Party (Time Magazine, Dec. 2009).

Civil Society. In France, the non-governmental organization GISTI is the largest resource center related to immigration. Once a month, it holds legal training classes for activists that run from two to five days and cost €380-900. Twice a year, it it also runs a one-day class which is open to immigrants. There are legal hotlines available through GISTI, but they are largely inaccessible due to overwhelming demand. 

The ongoing campaigns on behalf of asylum-seekers and undocumented workers are disjointed, and cover a vast set of policy objectives. Over the past year, there have been campaigns in Paris protesting the closure of detention centers, advocating improved access to services for refugees, and pushing for the establishment of ten-year residence visas for asylum-seekers.  These initiatives successfully recognize the diverse facets of the challenges surrounding immigration, but have the effect of fragmenting the national immigration debate. 

C) Recommendations

More effective discourse and efforts towards naturalization for asylum-seekers will lead to mutual gain on the part of refugees and the state. The refugees will experience decreased alienation, poverty, and stigmatization. Meanwhile, the French state's recognition and aiding of homeless refugees in their path to naturalization will allow those people to contribute to society through work, voluntarism, and taxes. These changes will create the foundations for a more peaceful, clean, and safe environment from the perspective of both citizens and refugees.

Our recommendations are as follows:

1. The French government should establish a permanent resource center for asylum-seekers in Paris.            

This is critical in order to make refugees aware of their rights under article 14.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

2. Civil society should expand services and the government should incentivize its work. 

For example, before the naturalization process begins, civil society in partnership with the government could facilitate the transportation of migrants to shelters, empty buildings, or unused land; continue provision of food and clothing; and provide language, literacy, cultural, and vocational education. Once naturalized, all migrants should have a secure place to live, clothing, access to food, and access to the employment market. 

3. Civil society should plan its initiatives based on the interests of asylum-seekers.

Although civil groups are currently best-situated to communicate grassroots interests to a broader public through awareness campaigns, they do not have established channels of communication with the refugees they claim to serve.  The organizations should hold regular meetings with asylum-seekers in order to empower grassroots leaders, understand their needs better, and promote collaborative activism.

4. Refugees and civil society should build a grassroots political profile in Paris.

Refugees can take a more active role to alleviate fears about their controversial presence in France. First, they should organize to provide a united voice and face to the national immigration debate. Second, they should engage positively with the local community by performing volunteer services. Third, with the help of civil society groups, they should aim to establish networks with local residents that promote positive personal experiences and encourage meaningful reflection about the implications of forced immigration.

5. Civil society should integrate various policy goals into a visible and unified campaign.

Just as refugees need to organize to better represent themselves, advocacy groups must also become more cohesive if they are to affect public opinion. A unified narrative and greater coordination among the different organizations will increase their solidarity, visibility, credibility, and political power. Civil groups could also actively collaborate with journalists and media organizations.  

6. The media should distinguish economic immigrants from asylum-seekers. 

Economic migrants legally differ from asylum-seekers, yet the two groups are often conflated in public discourse. While asylum-seekers are welcomed on the grounds of humanitarian protection, economic migrants are welcomed on the grounds of their contributions to domestic productivity.  Without a strong distinction, the public debate often targets both groups as ‘job thieves,’ especially in times of high unemployment.  Disaggregating these two groups would serve to better protect asylum-seekers, and reinforce the humanitarian basis for their presence on French soil. 

7.  French politicians, media, activist groups, and citizens should change the semantics of the public discourse on immigration policy. 

Terms such as ‘border control,’ ‘normalization’ and ‘integration’ frame the discourse on immigration as an issue of national security, rather than as one of human security. These characterize all immigrants as stigmatized outsiders. Instead, terms such as ‘entry,’ ‘inclusion’ and ‘humanitarian’ define the cross-border refugees as a fundamental human concern, not a left-wing or right-wing agenda item. Changing the semantic debate by using more neutral terminology will help to depoliticize immigration, and mitigate the widespread stigmatization of outsiders.  

8.  Government and civil society should ensure that the consultation process is inclusive of all stakeholders. 

Despite reports of negotiations between immigrants, the city of Paris and the police, there is little transparency in the current consultation process.  A greater degree of transparency will make these proceedings more inclusive, and enhance the dissemination of information.  The presence of regular local round-table discussions that are consistently attended by asylum-seekers, civil society organizations, and state representatives will ensure that any policy recommendations effectively address the needs of refugees.  Such sustained interaction among all relevant stakeholders will promote broad cooperation, and enable the state to be more efficient in enacting subsequent policies.


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HIA Program:

France France 2011


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