French parliament to debate 'tough' immigration reform

Disputed bill proposed by French government seeks to speed up asylum applications and expedite deportations.

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    France's parliament is set to debate toughening the country's immigration policies through a bill that would accelerate the consideration of asylum applications and expedite deportations.

    The disputed bill, which will be debated in parliament on Monday, has prompted criticism from opposing sides of the political spectrum.

    Summarising the draft bill, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said it should get the country "out of the situation where we badly welcome those to whom we owe the reception, and where we do not send away those who have no right to stay in France". 

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    While the text contains some effective rights improvements, it has been criticised for its restrictive nature, as President Emmanuel Macron seeks to address widespread anti-immigrant sentiment.

    The bill would shorten the timeframe during which an arrival in France can apply for asylum.

    One of the bill's objectives is to see the legal detention period of those who have been refused asylum prolonged from the current 90 days to 135 days while awaiting deportation.

    Another aim is to shorten the time frame in which a migrant can apply for asylum from 120 to 90 days.

    Rejected applicants would no longer be able to apply for another residence permit and the appeal period would be reduced to 15 days.

    Financial assistance would be offered to those rejected applicants who are willing to return to their home countries voluntarily.

    Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, who introduced the reform in January, said: "the bill is balanced and will align our procedures with those existing in neighbouring countries".

    He also suggested that France's "lax asylum policies" were responsible for the influx of migrants.

    'Inhumane measures'

    However, the immigration bill has faced fierce criticism from non-governmental organisations and French government agencies dealing with refugees.

    La Cimade, an organisation that works with undocumented immigrants in France, is one of the NGOs leading the battle against the bill.

    "The objective is; grant fewer rights, expel more people, migrants and rejected asylum seekers," Rafael Flichman, communications officer at La Cimade, told Al Jazeera.

    "Locking up thousands of people for 45 days or more to expel a few hundred more a year is an inhumane measure that will undoubtedly generate trauma and violence related to deprivation of freedom," he said.

    "Detention centres are prisons. For example, someone recently committed suicide in a detention centre in Marseille. Self-harm and suicide attempts are very common in this situation," Flichman added.

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    According to Flichman, countless asylum seekers living on the streets in Paris also "do not have access to a lawyer, support from an association, no legal skills, and no internet access" and thus would be unable to appeal in under 15 days.

    In a letter to the French newspaper Le Monde published in January, a group of analysts and academics accused Macron of "double language" on migration.

    The group includes Jean Pisani-Ferry, an economist who put together Macron's economic programme.

    "Mr Macron, your policies contradict the humanism that you advocate," the letter reads.

    "Unfortunately, we have woken up in a country where we tear the blankets off the migrants in Calais... deface their tent canvases in Paris. Where one can get lost, hands and feet frozen, on the snowy slopes of the Franco-Italian border.

    "Thus Eritreans, Sudanese or Syrians, humiliated in their country, tortured in Libya... terrorised in the Mediterranean, who have entered Europe by Greece or Italy, may soon be deprived of their liberty in France," the letter adds.

    The Jungle

    In an effort to clamp down on the migrants, France began dismantling the "The Jungle" camp in Calais, in northern France, in 2016.

    It was home to as many as 8,000 people, including 1,200 children, who were seeking to cross the English Channel to reach the UK.

    The United Nations have warned this month that hundreds of refugees are still living in "inhumane" conditions in northern France with no access to sanitation and only polluted rivers to wash themselves in.

    It is estimated that up to 900 asylum-seekers and migrants are still in Calais.

    "This law is not based upon a humane philosophy at all," Marion Beaufils, a legal adviser in a detention centre, told Al Jazeera. "It applies a very punitive approach to immigration."

    "The people currently detained in administrative detention centres are very worried that this new law will be passed," she added.

    Last year, applications for asylum in France rose to 100,000, an increase for the third consecutive year, even though the number across Europe fell, according to Eurostat.

    Minor positive aspects

    The draft bill proposes plans for better protection and housing for refugees.

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    It would also extend the right to family reunification to cover the siblings of refugee minors, whereas before they had only been able to bring their parents to join them in France.

    Measures to protect young girls in France who are at risk of female genital mutilation would also be reinforced.

    But "the positive aspects of the reform are very minor and will concern only a few hundred people per year," Flichman said.

    The government argues that its proposed bill is balanced and that it seeks to comply with European Union regulations with regards to immigration by 2020, to be on equal footing with other EU member states.

    "The government takes two risks with this project; disappointing the left who want more tolerance and generosity in the field of immigration, even if they agree with the idea of fighting illegal immigration; and to disappoint the right who seek to defend strong themes on national identity," Bruno Cautres, a political scientist and researcher at Sciences Po in Paris, told Al Jazeera.

    Cautres argued, "we must not stop educating the French on tolerance towards people from other countries and cultures".

    "But the government also needs to show that it is working together with its European partners on the issue of immigration. We cannot say that we want a stronger European integration and at the same time leave this problem to our neighbours, Germany or Italy in particular.

    "France is not doing enough to welcome refugees," he said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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