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France: what have we done with the right to asylum?
16 July 2012

A man carrying his belongings walks past as protesters hold up signs during the eviction of hundreds of asylum seekers from a building they were occupying in Nice in December 2010. (Reuters/ Eric Gaillard, courtesy – AlertNet)
Can the law rediscover its foremost vocation of guaranteeing human security and dignity?

Paris, 16 July 2012 – Denise, from Rwanda, was three when her family was wiped out. Going from one refugee camp to another, she crossed Tanzania and found herself in Mayotte, part of the Comoros islands. Mayotte is French territory so when Denise was 18, she was summoned to the National Asylum Tribunal. She dropped everything and went to Paris, only to discover that her hearing had been postponed. Denise was completely alone. Six months later, her application was turned down. Will she be sent back to Rwanda? "When will I be able to return to Mayotte, to my books and my friends?" she asks longingly, over and again. 

The law does not grant her the right to do so but instead opens up a future of exploitation in one way or another. How can a completely legal asylum procedure become such a degrading route down which to go? For more than 200 years, France has reaffirmed its commitment to the right to asylum. In reality, the stated reasons for curbing this right are many. Their legitimacy usually rests on government statistics, which depict France in a generous light, showing how the country plays its part by welcoming more refugees than others. 

But this does not conceal the resolute violence of a policy that excludes foreigners, of a law that at once organises and trivialises violence. The statistics say nothing about the brutal police hunts, about the measures taken to split up families, about the administrative delays, and incessant humiliations. The statistics are silent about the deliberate and systematic marginalisation of men and women, day in, day out. This is the most scandalous violence today because it is covered up and supported by the law.

Countless examples come to mind. Some asylum seekers actually burn their fingertips before entering France, to try to prevent the border police from identifying and deporting them. The authorities have issued a circular refusing asylum, on principle, to those who go to such extremes in their despair. 

In February 2012, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that France's "fast-track" asylum procedure had failed to provide effective remedy to a first-time asylum seeker. The man from Sudan, who was granted refugee status on appeal, would most probably have been deported had he not turned to the ECHR. In 2010, 24% of the overall number of asylum applicants were forced through the fast track, and were not granted the same basic assistance as asylum seekers facing the normal procedure.  Not that life is easy for them either: take Barnabé, who applied for asylum a year ago, and is still waiting for his interview. He has gone to the prefecture to renew his 'receipt' about 10 times, first to present himself, then to get his file, then to fill it, then the documents were not correct, then they expired, then the photo was too dark. "I used to join the queue at 5am but didn't get in because only a few people are seen. So I went at 3am but there were people queuing to sell their place to the highest bidder later on. Now I go at 2am and it's ok," he says. It's ok, at least he will still get the social benefits for asylum seekers, but on 1 February 2012, when the temperature at night was -9 degrees, Barnabé was standing in the queue.

Can the law rediscover its foremost vocation of guaranteeing human security and dignity? In the words of Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), a German Jew who was one of the leading political philosophers of the twentieth century, can the law succeed in "creating a space where it is valid; a world where we can move in freedom"? The very legitimacy of our law is at stake. By pandering to opinion surveys, by offering illusory juridical security, the law has lost its legitimate foundations: wisdom, justice and the universality of values. 

Shouldn't the foundations of the law be the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for they alone unite us and surpass our fears and passions? If people lose their rights as citizens, they should get protection and enjoy respect of their inalienable human rights. However, "the opposite is the case," says Arendt. "A man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow human being."

We cannot be indifferent about violence against foreigners. We are all migrants and travellers on earth, tomorrow more than yesterday. Perhaps our children and grandchildren will be exiled far from home. Will they be treated with the same violence by those countries where they look for reception? 

JRS France 

This article came from the latest edition of Servir. Click here to read more.

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