By Patrick Simon
INED (Institut national d'études démographiques)
The Sangatte refugee camp near the Eurotunnel transport terminal in Calais accommodates more than 1,500 asylum seekers, most of them Afghans or Kurds. Most are intent on applying for refugee status in the UK -- a country believed to grant this status more readily and offer better social benefits. The asylum seekers wait without residence permits in the Red Cross-run camp, looking for an opportunity to enter England illegally by train or in a lorry.
The issue has become a tense one for the French and British governments. On July 12, French Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy and his English counterpart, David Blunkett, agreed that the camp, which has been open since September 1999, should be closed before April 2003. Furthermore, with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Afghans should be encouraged to return home "on a voluntary basis." This move reinforced activities underway in Great Britain to tighten the rules governing asylum, which are likely to result in the creation of detention centers and more efficient procedures for expulsion.
France and Great Britain are not alone on this issue. Asylum is a central issue in the new European immigration policy debate, which was initiated at the summit meeting in Seville. Recent statistics provided by the UNHCR, show a noteworthy drop in applications for asylum since 2001, particularly in Belgium and Holland, with a slowing in Germany. These trends are raising concerns that EU countries are gradually closing their frontiers to asylum seekers. Furthermore, it appears that restrictions in some countries may be leading to increases in applications in others.
For its part, France is believed to be experiencing a redistribution of asylum claims, with the number of applications increasing from 31,000 in 1999 to reach more than 47,000 in 2001. This represents a 53 percent increase over the 1999-2001 period compared with a 3.3 percent decrease in the UK, a 7.3 percent decrease in Germany, and a 17.1 percent decrease in the Netherlands. The actual number of asylum seekers in France is higher, since the application figures only count adults. Officials estimate that children make up another 12 to 15 percent on top of the 47,000 figure.
However, the total number of applications in France is even greater still if one includes the territorial asylum procedure. The so-called "RESEDA" law of May 11, 1998 created access to a "subsidiary" type of protection, provided by the Ministry of the Interior. This is in addition to the conventional type of asylum, for which the French authorities use a restrictive interpretation. As a result, for example, Algerian nationals persecuted by Islamic terrorists are excluded from conventional asylum claims and rely on territorial asylum to receive refugee status. Asylum seekers generally apply for one or the other status.
Unlike conventional asylum, those persons applying for territorial asylum do not benefit from social aid and housing, and it is more difficult for them to obtain asylum. The percentage of acceptances for territorial asylum reached three percent of nearly 12,000 applications in 2000, whereas for conventional asylum the percentage was about 17 percent. The majority of refugee associations working with asylum seekers are calling for wider accessibility to conventional asylum and for the abolition of territorial asylum. Together, the two types of asylum seekers totaled roughly 65,000 in 2001, not including children.
The growth in the number of applications for asylum has extended the time required to process asylum applications by the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et des Apatrides, OFPRA) from 4.2 months in 1999 to 7.1 months in 2001.
Problems encountered during the process further decrease the likelihood of making a successful asylum claim. For example, many asylum seekers do not have the opportunity to explain their case in person to French officials; only 40 percent of cases in 2001 were actually heard. Furthermore, housing problems have also worsened. Not enough beds are available -- for example, the 8,100 beds in place in 2001 met only 15 percent of the applicants' needs.
However, those lodged in specialized accommodations gain by the fact that their cases are better examined; the percentage of acceptances of applications for asylum in specialized accommodations rises to 50 percent, whereas the average is 17 percent.
Furthermore, one-third of the applications accepted are issued by the Refugee Appeal Commission, whose decisions override any previous refusal issued by the OFPRA. The high rate of approval for appeals has raised concerns that the low acceptance rate for initial applications has denied protection to bona fide asylum seekers.
To reduce the backlog and expedite the process, OFPRA has set up 48-hour "priority procedures" for applications that are "manifestly unfounded," or for those coming from countries labeled "safe" by the suspension clause C5 of Article 1 of the Geneva Convention. In such cases, the application is almost always systematically refused. In 2001, 3,724 applications were processed using this procedure. Thirteen new countries are to be added to the list of countries covered under the clause of suspension.
The government intends to introduce asylum reforms before the end of August 2002. On July 25, an inter-ministerial meeting laid down the basic guidelines for this reform: reducing the time required for responses to be given to asylum seekers and simplifying procedures. Refugee associations are concerned about further restricting access to asylum. Many claim that the situation is already critical, if not a disaster.