When Bernard Cazeneuve, Minister of the Interior presented the bill on asylum law in the Conseil des Ministres on the 23rd July by few contested the necessity of the plan. During his time as Minister of the Interior, Cazeneuve’s predecessor, Manuel Valls, had already judged the system in place “à bout de souffle” and as a prime minister, he now aims to create a more efficient, more economical and faster process. The three main areas of the reform—attacking the delays in the examination of dossiers, the never-ending appeal procedures and the deficiencies of accommodation provided to asylum applicants—show the ambition of policymakers to save the concept of asylum law, which Cazeneuve defined as a key component of the French republican identity. However, despite its revolutionising goals, there are many who see the bill as an insufficient response to the existing problems. Debated in front of the Assemblée Nationale on the 9th of December, it is worth examining the situation it is aiming to solve and its chances of success.
Currently, those in need of protection have to apply to the prefecture of the department in which they are housed. It then becomes the job of OFPRA (l’Office français des réfugiés et apatrides) to examine the application, under the judiciary control of the CNDA (Cour nationale du droit d’asile), an authority that also rules on appeals against decisions rejecting asylum applications. The OFPRA’s acceptance rate remains low: despite its increase in the past couple of years, it only reached 12.8% in 2013. Although almost 90% of its decisions are contested, the CNDA only makes a positive decision about 15% of them. Finally, the Office français de l’immigration et de l’intégration allocates accommodation to asylum seekers on a national level. On average, the time needed for the whole process, from registering at the prefecture until getting the final decision, can take up to two years. During these years, more than 40,000 people are housed in emergency accommodation centres annually: both the shortage of such temporary homes and the length of the process show the inefficiency of the system. Even if France only accepts one asylum seeker out of five, the large majority of those rejected stays in the country- as the number of applicants has doubled since 2007, reaching almost 66,000 last year, the need for a solution has become increasingly urgent.
The first goal of the reform is to shorten the process: instead of two years, the time to handle one dossier would be reduced to nine months overall, until 2017. Another important innovation introduced is the accelerated treatment of individuals coming from “safe” countries. The seventeen states belonging to this category (such as Albania, Macedonia and Senegal) are deemed to respect liberty and human rights, democracy and the rule of law, meaning that a return to them would not put individuals in considerable danger. Currently, one third of migrants come in these accelerated procedures where the decision has to be made in three months. Every dossier classed to be in the accelerated procedure by a prefecture can be categorised as ordinary by the OFPRA. Plans to change the text of the reform also include limiting the number and releasing the complete list of ‘safe’ countries.
While the logic behind the measures is clear (to free up space in an overcharged system, aiming to prioritise those in real need), they can be attacked from several points of view. In fact, according to some critics, they have the potential to worsen the already precarious situation of asylum seekers. Many of them criticise the fact the dossiers of those coming from “safe” countries would be examined by one judge, without the presence of a rapporteur public. The possibility of mistakes is alarming. Without the more nuanced opinion of several members of the court (the rapporteur public’s role would be to intervene in the decision making), the appointed judge may not be able to measure correctly the severity of each case. As generalists, their lack of specific geopolitical expertise regarding the situation in the country where an applicant comes from can be especially problematic. In an interview with La Croix, Sandrine Mazetier from the Socialist Party claimed that for this reason, the requirements towards these judges will be higher, but she did not specify how exactly she aims to measure their competence. Another issue is the criteria used to determine if someone comes from a “non-dangerous” country: relying on the “contradictory” character of the applicant’s declarations, among about ten other factors, does not seem to guarantee the fairest treatment of the candidates. Neither does the fact that, in accelerated cases, only three members of the Cour nationale du droit d’asile would be present, instead of the usual five. This measure is criticised by Julian Fernandez, associate judge of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees to the CNDA for the unreasonably rushed decisions it can lead to.
Apart from the problem of time, the reform also plans to find an answer to the lack of accommodation available to asylum seekers. The bill aims to increase the places available at the CADA (Centre d’accueil pour les demandeurs d’asile) by 5000, by transforming 1000 places in emergency accommodation and unifying and simplifying the process. One of the biggest challenges in this area is posed by the geographic concentration of the placement of asylum seekers. Currently, 50% of dossiers are submitted in the Ile-de-France region, while other territories are lacking applicants. In order to create a more equilibrated situation, the bill aims for an equal distribution of places, with the restriction that those who reject the accommodation offered would stop receiving aid from the state. This proposition has already received numerous criticisms. According to Natalys Martin, a lawyer of Amnesty International France, it can have as a result that a person loses their benefits only because they do not want to move to a particular area, or do not ask for a permission if they want to leave it. The Secours Catholique is equally concerned that the propositions hide the will to control the actions of asylum seekers and the existing suspicion against them. The organisation also thinks that, by making the Office français de l’immigration et de l’intégration responsible for this part of the project, the bill creates a dangerous confusion between providing sanitary and social protection to the population and its surveillance.
However, human rights issues are not the only possible problems with the reform. At this point, no one knows if the budget necessary for building the new accommodation centres will be available next year. Pierre Henry, the director of France Terre d’asile, fears that restrictions in the budget of 2015 will make it impossible to implement. On the other hand, one should also acknowledge the possible cuts in the spending after the reform: while aiming to create fairer decisions, the accelerated process also results in decreased spending, by halving the time of the procedures.
Despite the high number of critics, the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees claimed that the bill was leading to a rationalisation and simplification of procedures, making them more efficient. The National Consultative Commission on Human Rights equally expressed their approval, highlighting the reform’s positive aspects, such as the recognition of the right to accommodation for all applicants. Nonetheless, the risk exists that speeding up the procedure will not create more equality, but severely hurt the rights of refugees, without the time needed for an informed judgment. As lawyer Marianne Lagrue said to lavie.fr, making the process faster is an advantage, but rushing it is a mistake. The Coordination française pour le droit d’asile is also afraid that, while pretending to be humanist, the government’s policies are more concerned with controlling migration than protecting the human rights of the applicants. Apart from their critiques, Amnesty International and other human rights NGOs have formed propositions for the consideration of politicians. With the debate about the bill starting soon, it remains to be seen to what extent these will be considered.