At the end of 1999, France hosted about 30,000 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included 4,077 individuals granted asylum, an estimated 15,500 asylum seekers whose applications remained pending at year's end, about 4,000 Algerians with territorial asylum, an estimated 5,000 Kosovo Albanians who arrived during the year and did not apply for asylum, and some 1,000 Yugoslavs denied asylum during the year who nevertheless remained in need of protection.

During the year, asylum seekers submitted 30,830 applications in France, an increase of 38 percent over 1998. France received the sixth most applications among Western European countries (seventeenth relative to its population). During 1999, the largest numbers of new asylum seekers came from China (5,165), Yugoslavia (2,476), Congo-Kinshasa (2,269), and Turkey (2,212). These numbers did not include dependents.

French authorities issued decisions on 24,202 applications in 1999, conferring refugee status in 4,077 cases – a 17 percent approval rate. During the last quarter of 1999, Sri Lanka and Yugoslav nationals had the highest recognition rates, at 33 and 30 percent, respectively.

France also extended temporary residence to approximately 12,500 Kosovo Albanian refugees in the spring. About 2,500 had permanently returned to Kosovo by year's end.

Refugees from Yugoslavia

Reversing its initial stance, France accepted some 7,500 Kosovars from Macedonian camps in April and May 1999, under the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) humanitarian evacuation program (HEP). Controversially, France selected them on the basis of family and social ties to existing resident immigrants. Because of the emergency nature of the evacuation, most other countries participating in the HEP conducted no such screening.

Although French legislation does not provide for temporary protected status, the government issued Kosovars a special six-month renewable residence permit. This allowed them housing and employment. Asylum seekers from Kosovo with pending applications enjoyed the right to work upon renewing their residence permits, a benefit not extended to other asylum seekers in France. About 5,000 Kosovar asylum seekers arrived spontaneously during the year, mostly through Italy. They first received a three month permit, then a renewable six-month permit. France stopped granting the special regime to Kosovars in September.

France allowed Kosovars to apply for asylum when their temporary residence permits expired. By September, 1,779 Yugoslav nationals had filed asylum claims. In the first nine months of the year, authorities granted asylum to 498 Yugoslavs, predominantly Kosovo Albanians who had applied before the spring crisis.

An estimated 2,500 Kosovars had returned to Kosovo by year's end. Upon return, they received modest financial assistance: 3,000 French francs per adult ($500), 500 francs per child ($85). The proportion of Kosovo refugees with temporary protection who volunteered to repatriate was considerably lower in France than in other European countries. This is likely because the initial screening had favored family reunification cases.

Asylum Procedure

The French border police detain insufficiently documented asylum seekers arriving at entry points, and pre-screen them to determine whether their cases are fraudulent, or whether to return the asylum seeker to another state party to the Dublin Convention (see chart). The decision to allow the asylum seeker to enter France rests with the Ministry of the Interior, advised by officials of the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA), an autonomous body within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The asylum seeker must be brought before a judge if no decision is reached within four days. Appealing negative pre-screening decisions is possible but does not suspend removal from the territory.

Asylum seekers permitted to enter France receive a six-day pass. They must proceed to a préfecture (the local outpost of the Ministry of the Interior), which determines admissibility under the provisions of the Dublin Convention. France has generally interpreted the Convention liberally, allowing family members to remain in France and apply for asylum together. OFPRA rules on the admissibility of cases not affected by the Dublin Convention.

France does not employ "safe country" criteria in assessing asylum requests. However, it does use an expedited procedure for manifestly unfounded applications, as well as for nationalities to which France has applied the UN Refugee Convention's cessation clause (determining that conditions have sufficiently improved in the country of origin). There were more than 2,200 expedited cases in both 1998 and 1999, more than double the amount in any prior year. Romanian applicants, and to a lesser extent Bulgarians, accounted for much of the increase because France began applying the cessation clause to these nationalities. Negative decisions in the expedited procedure can be appealed but have no suspensive effect.

After reaching a decision on admissibility, the préfecture either issues a deportation order and detains the applicant, or provides a one-month residence permit and an asylum application form. The individual has one month to submit the form to OFPRA, which is responsible for adjudicating cases on their merits. OFPRA reportedly takes an average of one year to issue a decision. OFPRA interviews ever fewer asylum applicants: 37 percent in 1999, compared to 55 percent in 1994.

Asylum seekers may appeal negative OFPRA decisions to the Refugee Appeals Commission (CRR). The CRR comprises three judges representing the Conseil d'Etat (France's highest administrative court), OFPRA, and UNHCR. Applicants may appeal CRR rejections to the Conseil d'Etat, but only on procedural grounds. An appeal to the Conseil d'Etat does not have suspensive effect. In 1999, the CRR reversed negative OFPRA decisions in ten percent of the cases reviewed.

Legislation passed in 1998 formalized two ad hoc practices of non-Convention protection. The Ministry of the Interior can grant "territorial asylum" to foreigners whose rights are at risk under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture and degrading treatment, or alternatively whose "life or freedom is under threat in their country." Territorial asylum confers only temporary residence and work authorization.

Authorities can also grant "constitutional asylum" to individuals "persecuted because of their activities in support of freedom." The evidentiary requirements and benefits of constitutional asylum and asylum accorded on the basis of the Refugee Convention are virtually identical. This largely symbolic status was granted only once in its first year of existence.

Restrictive Practices

Both OFPRA and CRR decisions have relied on a restrictive interpretation of the notion of "agents of persecution" in assessing Convention status applications. They recognize only persecution originating with, or tolerated by, state or de facto authorities. For instance, France has recognized acts carried out by militia in Bosnia as persecution under the UN Refugee Convention, accepting that such persecution derives from authorities with effective jurisdiction. But 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, shared by only 5 of 138 signatory states, has no foundation in the 1951 Convention.

The overwhelming majority of Algerians were denied refugee status in 1999, based on narrow interpretations of agents of persecution. Approval rates in recent years suggest that other nationalities affected by nonstate violence, including Afghans and Bosnians, have generally fared better than Algerians.

Paradoxically, formalizing territorial asylum in law – a status that seemed tailor made for such cases, since it does not require that the state be the persecutor – has resulted in fewer individuals receiving the status than under the previous, ad hoc system. In 1998, 1,339 asylum seekers (73 percent of whom were Algerian nationals) filed claims for territorial asylum, often in addition to a Convention asylum application. France only rendered eight positive decisions that year, of which six were Algerians. During the first five months of 1999, new applications soared by 116 percent, and the recognition rate doubled to nine percent.

Amnesty International observed that the territorial asylum procedure lacked the safeguards and transparency of the normal asylum procedure. Furthermore, while the standard of persecution that territorial asylum applicants must prove is in theory lower than for Convention status, there has been no observable difference in practice – even though the rights and benefits awarded are weaker.

Refugee advocates have criticized France's accumulation of subsidiary statuses for potentially eroding the awarding of Convention refugee status and the rights associated with it.

Refugee organizations have also criticized France for blocking access to its asylum procedure and for providing insufficient information and assistance to asylum seekers. Half of all border applications were reportedly denied as manifestly unfounded. The relatively small number of asylum claims registered at borders (about 2,500 in 1998 and 4,000 in 1999) suggests that many claims may never be processed. France also offers free legal assistance only if the asylum seeker entered the country legally, which is usually not the case. Nongovernmental organizations report that the treatment of claims by many préfectures is also flawed; many lack the administrative capacity to deal with the number of asylum requests.

(In January 2000, the Conseil d'Etat canceled a number of restrictive elements in the territorial asylum procedure. Among these was a routine priority procedure for nationalities to which France has applied the Convention's cessation clause. Also, the court decided that victims of state persecution were also entitled to apply for territorial asylum.)

Detention and Deportation

Pending a pre-screening decision or repatriation, insufficiently documented persons arriving at border points are held in "waiting zones" for up to 20 days. UNHCR and selected nongovernmental organizations can visit these areas (in airports, harbors, and railway stations). Living conditions in waiting zones reportedly remained poor in 1999, in part because of the sharp increase in the number of applicants applying for asylum at France's borders. In December, a judge denied a request by the border police to prolong the detention of 15 asylum seekers awaiting deportation after their claims had been declared inadmissible. The judge described the conditions of accommodation as "offensive to dignity."

In November, OFPRA reported an "explosion" of asylum applications from Chinese nationals in the third quarter of the year. The grounds for most claims, the agency said, were China's one-child policy, official corruption, and religious persecution. Considering most of these claims "without basis," OFPRA approved fewer than two percent of the applications. In December, France denied asylum to 53 Chinese nationals on board a boat intercepted in French waters near Guadeloupe.

During the year, an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 rejected asylum seekers were still present on French territory, as fewer than one-fifth of deportation orders were executed. Refugee experts have blamed France's criminalization of undocumented foreigners for the saturation and breakdown of the enforcement system, and the development of a precarious "gray asylum" system.

Reception and Integration

Asylum seekers in France do not enjoy the right to work. Those who do not reside in collective centers are entitled to a monthly allowance of 1,700 francs ($280) for one year. Territorial asylum applicants receive neither accommodation nor social assistance. Insufficient reception capacity remained an acute problem in France in 1999; 63 centers had a combined capacity of 3,800. Waiting lists averaged 2,000 during the year. France opened a center for unaccompanied minors in 1999 on a trial basis.

Convention refugees and those granted constitutional asylum can exercise their right to family reunification regardless of their living and financial circumstances. Beneficiaries of territorial asylum do not have this right. However, they can apply for family reunification on the same terms as other resident aliens, after two years of residence in the country. Refugees applying for family reunification are also subject to residence, housing, and income requirements, unless they are Algerian nationals. A French legal aid organization noted that the main obstacle for many applicants was documenting family ties, particularly when applicants had not declared their family ties in their original asylum application.

France issued residence permits to about 10,000 undocumented foreigners in 1999, including rejected asylum seekers whose applications had been unsuccessful in earlier legalization drives. France promised to issue residence permits on the basis of long-term presence in France or compelling humanitarian reasons. However, immigrant organizations criticized the unduly restrictive practice of many préfectures in treating the claims. Many legalization applications were reportedly rejected for failing to meet a high threshold of proof of continuous employment, or for arbitrarily introducing new criteria such as financial resources or long-term visas.

Voluntary Repatriation

France ran two assisted-return programs for foreigners asked to leave the country, including rejected asylum seekers. In addition to paying for the return trip, expelled adults who agreed to leave France received 1,000 francs ($165); children received 300 francs ($50). France also assisted foreigners rejected from the legalization process: 4,500 francs per adult ($750), 900 francs ($150) per child. In 1998, fewer than 1,400 participated in these two programs. Statistics were not yet available for 1999.


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