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France’s plans for asylum seekers raise questions of rights and legality

media French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb in the northern port city of Calais, 2 February 2018. Reuters/Philippe Huguen

France’s government proposed on Wednesday to speed up decisions on asylum requests and tighten controls for migrants in a new immigration bill. Interior Minister Gerard Collomb says the bill is balanced and aligned with European law, though critics have a different view.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government argues that its proposals to modify France’s existing immigration and asylum regulations are firm but fair.

“The law is balanced,” said Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, arguing France needed to tighten its rules to match those of counterparts elsewhere in Europe.

“If we don't take this into account, we won't be able, tomorrow, to guarantee the right to asylum in France.”

While highly skilled immigrants would benefit from longer resident cards and more leeway in seeking jobs or starting businesses, asylum seekers would be confronted by more contentious proposals.

One would reduce processing times for asylum requests from a year to six months, raising concerns that officials would not have the time to examine each case properly.

“Reducing procedures in itself is a good thing, but what we are against is reducing them at the expense of people’s rights and lives,” says Hélène Soupios-David, a policy officer with asylum seekers rights group France Terre d’Asile.

She argues that seemingly technical changes could have a huge impact on people’s lives, for example a proposal to reduce the time to appeal a rejected application from one month to two weeks.

“That means that within two weeks, a person will have to gather new evidence to prove their claim, they will have to contact a lawyer, they will have to write an appeal in French, and already our colleagues on the ground tell us it is extremely difficult to do that in one month.”

Tougher punitive measures for migrants

The government would also introduce five-year jail terms for anyone using fake identity papers and also make it a criminal offence, punishable by jail and fines, to make illegal border crossings.

That raises concerns with rights groups over the legal justification for the proposals.

“They are part of a broader policy over the past several years in France of reinforcing controls and aiming to sort out people at the border,” says Marine de Haas with refugee rights group La Cimade, which wants the bill to be dropped.

“[That] is in breach of the Geneva Conventions, which say that every single person has the right to enter and seek asylum in a country including France,” she continues.

“Also, the measure to force people to go through one of the checkpoints at the border is in breach with European law, which says people cannot be criminalised by entering a country irregularly to seek asylum.”

New tensions over the EU free movement area

Current laws of the European Union’s free movement area, known as the Schengen agreement, forbid regular checks at internal EU borders.

Exceptions are allowed, and France has been carrying out temporary border checks on anti-terror grounds since shortly after the Paris attacks of November 2015.

Criminalising illegal border crossings would require border checks to continue, now on the grounds of patrolling for migrants, adding a new legal complication over the length and nature of what are supposed to be temporary controls.

“France is implementing border checks on the basis of the terrorist threat, and a group of five states, including Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, is performing internal checks due to the migratory situation,” says Yves Pascouau, a researcher in European migration law at the University of Nantes.

“So for the very first time in the history of the Schengen agreement, six states are performing checks for a long period of time, and we are reaching the legal limits of that situation,” he continues.

“Now we will have to see what the European Commission is going to do with respect to that situation, and whether the Commission will acknowledge whether those checks are fully legal or not.”

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