Migration crisis: civil society fills the gap of the state

Migration has been a key issue in European politics for the past several years, and with French elections next year set to reignite debates around the topic in France, Marie-Christine Ghreichi examines the national and european response. In this piece, Marie-Christine suggests that government measures are falling short, leaving civil society groups to attempt to fill the gap.

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Recent years have been marked by an increasingly tribal and polarized world that is conversely more interconnected and inter-dependent than ever before.  Almost 80 million people have been displaced globally, and the forced migration of individuals affected by war and mass atrocities in these precarious times can no longer be ignored. France and the European Union have reached a hypocritical nadir in their  response to the “migration crisis” since 2015. Images from “the jungle” camp at Calais shocked the world in the fall of 2016, when French authorities expelled approximately 8,000 migrants attempting to cross into England, relocating them to various migrant centres across France.  The operation turned violent with migrants protesting their forced removal. The vast majority of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Calais had journeyed from Sudan, as well as from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and Pakistan. Currently, Afghanis remain the largest nationality seeking asylum in France. Following the dismantling, migrants remain scattered in smaller make-shift settlements in the region surrounding Calais, but more recently have sought refuge in the country’s capital. 

The migrant camps inside and in the outskirts of Paris have morphed into a no man’s land of inhumanity, misery, sickness and at times violence. A migrant died in a camp in Porte D’Aubervilliers in north-eastern Paris in early  2020, the circumstances unclear, while another drowned in the canal flowing through the northern suburb of Saint Denis. On November 17, 2020 Paris police dismantled  a migrant camp in Saint Denis, constructed in the shadows of the Stade de France.  The operation cleared a camp housing an estimated  2,000 migrants in order to resettle them into various reception centres and sports halls in the region.  The evacuation however, lacked facilitation from local and state administrative aid institutions or social workers, with witnesses reporting the use of aggressive tactics, such as tear gas and the barring of media from covering the operation.  

Not all inhabitants were able to reach housing centres, leaving around 500 men to wander the streets of Paris. These migrants and local activists created a new camp at the heart of France’s revolutionary collective memory, Place de la République. On November 23, 2020 this camp was again  dismantled, with the approval of the Interior Minister of France.  This episode was marked by greater violence, garnering condemnation from the Mayor of Paris. Following this incident, the state announced it would offer housing for around 250 individuals after clearing the camp at Saint Denis, falling desperately short of the needs on the ground. As of January 2021, the state has provided additional housing to approximately 400 migrants, with around 300 remaining without lodging and some subject to deportation orders.

A crackdown on migration through a series of measures, including various evacuations of this nature have occurred in the past two years seemingly on the directive of the Parisian police prefect.  Moreover, in efforts to combat growing right wing trends and competition in French political life, President Macron has taken a more hard-line approach towards migration in 2019, forcing asylum seekers to wait three months before qualifying for non-urgent health care for example.  These measures have coincided with a concerted effort to clear all informal camps in and around Paris. Consequently, the gap created by the state’s limited and problematic response to the wave of migration has been in effect “outsourced” to local associations,  with public authorities making life so unbearable for individuals coming to France that they feel obliged to return to their country of origin.   

In addition to national policies concerning migration, asylum seekers are subject to the Dublin regulation, which stipulates that they must apply for refuge in the country they first registered in the EU. Therefore, the country of entry is responsible for accepting or rejecting their claim in order to prevent individuals from submitting an asylum application to multiple member states. Despite the precariousness of this convention, many migrants remain in France or wish to enter another EU state where they believe their chances of receiving asylum status is more likely. During the registration process upon entering EU territory, some migrants have even attempted to burn their fingers when asked to be fingerprinted, so as not to be flagged according to the Dublin procedure. 

The barrier created by the Dublin approach is compounded by the already laborious and often convoluted procedure for applicants on French territory. Through the Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration, where applicants submit their applications, they are also assessed for the vulnerability of their case.  Those demonstrating high vulnerability may receive greater priority for placement in reception centers and financial aid. The financial aid and housing is offered in a package, which places these applicants in smaller regions of France and is often misunderstood by the applicants. Ultimately, through the Hébergement d’Urgence des Demandeurs d’Asile and the Centre d’Hébergement pour Demandeur d’Asile, around 50% of asylum seekers are sheltered by the state in these designated centres.  Moreover, these centres are managed by associations mandated by the state. Additionally, migrants and asylum seekers are forced to react to shifting relations between the Foreign Ministry and their country of origin. The French Foreign Ministry along with ministries of other European states designates which countries experiencing conflict or political instability are deemed “safe”, which is often influenced by bilateral agreements between European states and the state in question. Agreements between the EU and Turkey and the EU and Libya for example, were designed to curb the flow of migration to Europe. After finalizing the agreement with Turkey and designating Afghanistan as a “safe country”, Turkish authorities began deporting Afghan refugees and asylum seekers.

In France, particularly in Paris and Calais, any humanitarian response to the presence of migrants is predominately addressed by civil society actors, mainly in the form of local grassroots associations. One such actor, Utopia 56 was created in 2014 in response to the growing needs at “the jungle” of Calais. The association provides food, relevant information and accommodation to migrants in  Calais, Grande-Synthe, Lille, Paris, Rennes, Toulouse and Tours.  Utopia does not however receive or accept money from the state. Another French organization, WATIZAT provides information to migrants via multilingual guide books that are updated monthly into French, English, Arabic, Pashto and  Dari. These guides clarify the steps of the asylum procedure along with providing addresses to sites where migrants can seek medical support, shower, and charge their phones. 

Another association based in Paris, L’Assiette Migrante was formed by a group of citizens in 2019 to welcome migrants despite hostility shown by the French state. According to a board member of the association, “in light of the crisis of the state power to welcome them, as citizens we wanted to show these people in distress that we are not indifferent to their suffering.  And despite a lack of welcome from state powers, we wanted to show we as citizens will help in solidarity.” The association provides food primarily through meal preparation in a community kitchen in the 18th arrondissement of Paris and distributions of these meals. The Assiette Migrante prepares food in this community kitchen and is able to provide approximately 200 meals to migrants at each distribution. Originally, this project was designed to link migrants and French citizens by cooking together. The distributions are largely financed by the activities of the community kitchen through buffets and donations.  Though some large associations are mandated by the state to provide some services in the encampments in France, the vast majority of the work is carried out by local associations like the Assiette Migrante without substantial state support.

The failure of European institutions and actors to adequately respond to this “migration crisis” also diverges from obligations placed on them by the European system and international law. The European Charter guarantees basic fundamental rights of human dignity, the right to life, integrity, liberty, security and to be free of inhuman or degrading punishment. Many migrants offer their stories in which they recount spending up to five years, in some cases building a life in other EU member states such as Germany and Sweden before arriving in France, because their case for asylum was ultimately rejected in these countries. In 2016, Sweden intended to reject around 80,000 asylum applicants, aided in part by an agreement between Sweden and Afghanistan allowing for the Scandanavian nation to repatriate individuals with failed asylum applications.  Between December 2016 and January 2021, Germany has deported 868 Afghans with such failed asylum applications. Many of these migrants have since returned to Europe, targeting France as their new destination. However, such episodes witnessed between 2016-2020 in Paris and Calais, reveal the failure of France but also the leaders of Europe to effectively engage with the movement of people across their borders in accordance with their own values. France and other European states must tackle this crisis–which shows no signs of dissipating–head on by engaging with alternative policy strategies.  Moreover, adopting novel approaches could ensure such policies respect the basic rights of those affected, give a voice to those who remain invisible and provide a model for the emerging global trends. Finally, these steps are essential in guaranteeing accountable governance that is consistent with the values of Europe.

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Marie-Christine Ghreichi received her Master’s from Sciences Po, Paris specializing in International Security with a focus on Diplomacy and the Middle East Region. After completing her studies in the United States where she supported a transitional justice research collaborative, she worked with Catholic Relief Services in Beirut, Lebanon before then coming to Paris to pursue her master’s degree. Her previous research has focused on corruption, social mobilization and accountable governance in the Middle East.

This piece was co-authored by Tigranna Zakaryan, who is an independent researcher specializing in refugee rights, forced migration, and international diplomacy.

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Cover Image: Volunteers preparing food to be served to refugees and vulnerable people in Paris, credit: L’Assiette Migrante, a civil society association that prepares and distributes meals to migrants and anyone in need in the Paris region (https://www.lassiettemigrante.com/)