At the end of 1998, France hosted about 17,400 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included 3,684 individuals granted asylum and 523 relatives of refugees admitted to France during the year, an estimated 9,500 asylum applicants whose applications remained pending at year's end, about 3,000 Algerians with "territorial asylum," and some 686 Yugoslavs denied asylum during the year who nevertheless remained in need of protection.

Asylum seekers filed some 22,374 applications for asylum in France during 1998, a 4.5 percent increase from the 21,416 applications in 1997. The number of claimants filing in 1998 nevertheless represents a significant decrease from the 56,000 asylum applications filed in 1990. In October 1997, Human Rights Watch credited carrier sanctions and visa requirements with significantly reducing the number of asylum applicants arriving in France during the 1990s. In 1998, the largest number of asylum seekers came from Romania (13.6 percent), followed by China (9.3 percent), Sri Lanka (8.1 percent), and Congo-Kinshasa (7.9 percent).

During 1998, French authorities issued decisions on some 22,373 applications, conferring refugee status in 3,684 cases, a 16.5 percent approval rate. Refugee recognition rates according to nationality were available only for the last six months of 1998. During the second half of the year, applicants from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam had the highest approval rate (grouped together for statistical purposes, these nationalities had a combined approval rate of 82 percent), followed by claimants from Sri Lanka (47 percent) and Turkey (23 percent).

France granted legal status to some 79,400 undocumented foreigners 1997 and 1998 under a June 24, 1997 government decision to grant residence permits to certain categories of undocumented foreigners, mostly those with family ties in France. Nationals of Algeria, Morocco, Mali, Congo-Kinshasa, and China, were the largest groups benefiting from the decision. Out of some 6,400 foreigners who applied to legalize their stay in France on the human rights grounds established under the government decision, only 403, or 6.3 percent, were granted residence permits. The Ministry of the Interior justified its low approval rate, arguing that the competent authorities for asylum had already examined the applications.

New Asylum Legislation

Almost one year after taking office with the promise to abrogate the more restrictive aspects of the Pasqua and Debré laws, on May 11, 1998, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's socialist government passed new legislation on asylum and the entry and stay of foreigners (the so-called loi Chevènement). Nevertheless, the government's efforts met criticism from all sides. While human rights and refugee organizations criticized the legislation for not going far enough to remedy what they saw as serious gaps in the French asylum system's ability to protect refugees, right-wing and ultranationalist politicians accused the government of opening the flood gates to uncontrolled migration.

The new law consolidated existing asylum legislation under the 1952 statute that established the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA) and the Refugee Appeals Commission (CRR) – a decision intended to highlight the unique concerns regarding asylum as opposed to immigration generally.

The new law also created two subsidiary forms of protection in addition to asylum. The first of these, "territorial asylum," is a form of temporary protection that the French authorities had granted on an ad hoc, discretionary basis since the early 1990s. The new law created a legal basis for territorial asylum, authorizing the Ministry of the Interior to grant the status to foreigners who face threats to their lives or freedom, or risk treatment contrary to Article 3 of the European Human Rights Convention (which prohibits torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment). The law also resurrected an unused provision of the French constitution that extends "constitutional asylum" to individuals persecuted because of their "activities in support of freedom." Recipients of territorial asylum receive temporary residence permits and work authorization. Constitutional asylum, on the other hand, confers the same, more generous, rights and benefits as asylum.

While French officials extolled the benefits of the new law for refugees, some refugee advocates reacted less positively. Some observers pointed out that the threshold for receiving territorial asylum in France is not far from the requirements for refugee status, requiring proof of individual and concrete risk.

During a USCR site visit to France in July 1998, one expert who closely followed the French legal changes and monitored their impact told USCR that the new territorial asylum provision is likely to benefit relatively few people, noting that if an asylum applicant is not granted refugee status, it is unlikely that he or she will qualify for territorial asylum either. The expert also charged that the creation of various subsidiary statuses, such as territorial asylum, may ultimately erode the right to asylum. He noted that the main recipients of territorial asylum up to this point have been Algerian and Bosnian victims of nonstate persecution denied asylum due to France's restrictive interpretation of agents of persecution. Many of these individuals are Convention refugees and should receive refugee status rather than what amounts to a second class refugee status with curtailed rights and fewer benefits, the expert remarked.

Asylum Procedure

The French asylum procedure is governed by the law on foreigners of November 2, 1945, modified and supplemented by various amendments and decrees. A 1952 law established the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA), an autonomous body within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is responsible for adjudicating asylum claims. Asylum seekers may appeal negative OFPRA decisions to the Refugee Appeals Commission (CRR). Applicants may appeal CRR rejections to France's highest administrative court (the Conseil d'Etat), which may only consider questions of law. An appeal to the Conseil d'Etat will not automatically suspend an applicant's removal from French territory.

Persons admitted into the regular asylum procedure receive a monthly social security allowance of about 1,700 French francs ($320); asylum seekers do not have the right to work.

When a foreigner admitted into the country wishes to apply for asylum, or in cases where an asylum seeker has already entered France, either legally or illegally, he or she must proceed first to the local prefecture. In the normal procedure, the prefecture issues the person a one-month stay permit and provides an asylum application form. The individual must submit the form to OFPRA within one month, after which the applicant returns to the prefecture, which issues a three-month stay permit, renewable until the end of the determination procedure. OFPRA reportedly takes about two months to issue a decision on the merits of an asylum application.

The prefecture also assesses the bona fide character of the application, employing European Union (EU) resolutions on manifestly unfounded applications. Legally, the prefecture is competent to decide whether an application is manifestly unfounded only in cases involving responsibility under the Schengen and Dublin Conventions. In all other cases, OFPRA issues the final admissibility ruling. French legislation includes fraud as a criterion for declaring an application to be manifestly unfounded. If the prefecture rules an application inadmissible, instead of issuing a one-month stay permit, it issues a deportation order, and detains the applicant. Various nongovernmental organizations allege that the prefectures sometimes obstruct access to the asylum procedure, particularly for insufficiently documented asylum seekers.

Agents of Persecution

Both OFPRA and CRR (the appeals body) decisions traditionally have narrowly defined the interpretation of "agents of persecution." Officials responsible for both first- and second-instance decisions have recognized only persecution originating with, encouraged, or tolerated by state authorities, or de facto authorities. For example, France has recognized acts carried out by militia in Bosnia as persecution under the UN Refugee Convention, saying that such persecution derives from de facto authorities who have replaced legal authorities who do not control all the territory within their jurisdiction. However, OFPRA and CRR officials have not recognized persecution in situations where no national-level authority exists, as in Somalia. UNHCR has stated that this interpretation of agents of persecution "has no foundation in the 1951 [Refugee] Convention."

With the heightened press coverage of large-scale massacres and other violence in Algeria in 1997 and early 1998, however, France has somewhat liberalized its interpretation of agents of persecution. Certain French asylum officers and judges began to approve some victims of nonstate persecution on the grounds that the Algerian authorities tolerated the persecution or because they determined that the victim's request for protection would have been in vain. One observer noted that some asylum judges had gone to great lengths to stretch the notion of "voluntary tolerance" to grant asylum to Algerians persecuted by the militant Islamic opposition, even in cases where state toleration of the persecution was not in evidence. By granting asylum to Algerian applicants who did not request their government's protection because their requests would have been in vain, French asylum officers and judges also appeared to move closer to UNHCR's position on agents of persecution, accepting the reality that the Algerian government was, in many cases, unable to effectively protect its citizens, despite its alleged willingness to do so.

While viewing this as a positive development, various refugee advocates pointed out that this trend does not represent a stated change in policy, but remains informal and discretionary. Moreover, despite the changes, the overwhelming majority of Algerians continue to be denied refugee status. Approval rates for 1997 suggest that other nationalities traditionally affected by France's interpretation on agents of persecution, including Somalis, Afghans, and Bosnians, have fared better than Algerians as a result of France's more liberal approach.

The agents of persecution issue does not come into play in status determinations for territorial asylum and constitutional asylum.

Restrictive Measures

Amendments to the law on foreigners enacted in July 1992 and December 1994 subject insufficiently documented asylum seekers arriving at border and entry points to a pre-screening procedure to determine whether to grant them permission to enter the territory to pursue their asylum claims. Pending a decision on their entry, such persons are held in "waiting zones" in French airports, harbors, and some railway stations open to international traffic. If a decision on admission does not occur within four days, the asylum seeker in question must be brought before a judge. An asylum seeker may not be held for more than 20 days in a waiting zone.

Under this procedure, officers from OFPRA (within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) provide the Ministry of the Interior with an advisory opinion on the individual case. The Ministry of the Interior then decides whether the asylum seeker may enter France. Asylum seekers permitted to enter France receive a six-day "safe conduct" pass, allowing them to travel to a local prefecture to register their presence and request an asylum application form. The prefecture then conducts its own admissibility inquiry. If the Ministry of the Interior issues a nonadmission decision, the would-be asylum applicant may appeal, although the appeal does not suspend removal.

The Ministry of the Interior may deny admission to the territory if an asylum seeker's request is manifestly unfounded. In practice, authorities issued nonadmission decisions in cases where they believed another state party to the Schengen or Dublin Conventions was responsible for reviewing an asylum claim, and where they believed the application to be fraudulent.

Living conditions for asylum seekers held in the waiting zones were reportedly poor in 1998, in part because of the dramatic increase in the number of applicants applying for asylum at France's borders during the year. An estimated 2,000 asylum seekers requested asylum at the border, double the number in 1997. A French police union described conditions for asylum seekers at Charles de Gaulle Airport at the end of 1998 as "scandalous, inhuman, and degrading" as a result of severe overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions in facilities used to house asylum seekers.

On June 17, 1998, the French government issued a decree that facilitates the access of UNHCR and NGOs to the waiting zones. Of the 1,436 asylum seekers who lodged their claims at the border during 1998, 76 percent were granted admission to French territory, an increase from 72 percent in 1997, and 53 percent in 1996.

Dublin Convention

On September 1, 1997, France began implementing the Dublin Convention, a European Union (EU) agreement that determines state responsibility for adjudicating asylum applications. Generally, the convention stipulates that the member state permitting the asylum seeker entry, or the member state of first arrival in the event of illegal entry, is responsible for reviewing the asylum application.

Although no statistics on Dublin Convention implementation were available for 1998, France Terre d'Asile reported that the convention's procedures were complex and lengthy, leading France to consider ways to make the convention function more efficiently. France reportedly implemented the Dublin Convention in a flexible manner during 1998, allowing family members – who would have been forced to apply for asylum in different countries had France held to a strict interpretation of the convention's provisions – to remain in France and apply for asylum together.


UNHCR estimated that some 1,300 Yugoslavs, many ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, applied for asylum in France in 1998. France has denied asylum to many Kosovars, reportedly justifying the negative decisions by arguing that the applicants had fled generalized violence rather than individual persecution. Nevertheless, on March 27, the Ministry of the Interior instructed the prefectures not to forcibly repatriate Kosovar Albanians. On October 16, the ministry issued instructions that Kosovars should be granted three-month provisional residence permits, renewable for as long as the situation in Kosovo warrants.


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