To honor International Migrant Day, Draftsy discussed the issue of migration with Sarfaraz Khan, project coordinator at Dom’Asile, the association located in Ile-de-France. Founded in 2000, the association helps people who ask for asylum in France. In this exclusive interview for Draftsy, Khan Sarfaraz talks about how migrants are welcomed in France and what struggles they are going through.
D: Could you briefly describe what Dom’Asile does for migrants?
SK: Dom’Asile is an association that provides administrative help (domiciliation) to people in exile who do not have a stable accommodation or are excluded from public services and helps them access their administrative and social rights.
We have nine domiciliation and help centers in six departments of the Ile-de-France region, two specialized centers dedicated to helping people to access their social rights, and a support center for people in Parisian camps, in partnership with other associations, active citizens, and lawyers. These centers are entirely run by volunteers to provide people with an administrative address and help them with procedures and social rights.
Let’s clarify the term ‘immigrant.’ This term is used very broadly to include all categories of people who come to live in a foreign country. But the reason or the motivation for it can be very different. Some people leave their homelands in search of a better life, better career, or job opportunities. Others are forced to leave their motherland because of wars, conflicts, and the unlivable conditions threatening their lives. These people have no choice but to flee their countries to seek protection.
Dom’Asile, in fact, works for the rights of this category of persons; that is, it helps people who are in the situation of exile in France. We have different projects. In addition to several domiciliation and help centers in Ile-de-France, Dom’Asile runs an online multilingual and multimedia platform to provide information to asylum seekers, refugees, and people whose asylum requests have been denied. This platform provides information in articles, videos, and audio material. It has an online service to answer questions in different languages to accommodate immigrants that do not speak French. We have projects to help migrants become self-dependent and obtain their rights through our “do it yourself” video tutorials and collective information workshops in different languages.
Moreover, one of the essential activities of Dom’Asile is the advocacy and interpellation of the public authorities. We work with different organizations to monitor institutions’ abusive practices and find the solution to the various administrative blockades these people face.
D: With migrants from which countries do you work most? Are there specific trends that you see?
SK: We help people from many countries. But most of the migrants in our centers are from Bangladesh, Tibet, Soudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Congo, and Sri Lanka. The number of Afghan and Tibetan refugees needing help had recently gone up.
As we work with a specific category of ‘migrants,’ that is, the people who flee their countries to seek protection, it is difficult to talk about trends – in this case, they depend on the political situation in the countries. For example, the top five countries whose citizens applied for protection in France were Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Guinea, and Ivory Coast in recent years.
D: What are the main difficulties that the migrants and asylum seekers are going through in France and Ile-de-France specifically?
SK: Unfortunately, they face a lot of difficulties. France follows international and national laws which confer very well-defined rights to asylum seekers and refugees. For example, an asylum seeker has the right to get quick access to the asylum process, get a subsistence allowance, accommodation, and other basic needs. Once the asylum seeker is recognized as a refugee, they have the right to receive language training, get a resident card, a travel document, and the option to bring their spouse and minor children to France.
Those whose asylum request has been rejected also have rights, including getting a minimum free health care service (called aide médicale d’état), a reduced-priced transport card if living in Ile-de-France, and the right to get their children enrolled in a school.
But, in reality, it’s very difficult to obtain these rights. The first hurdle is the language and the lack of information. A large population of immigrants does not speak French, and they have no idea how the French administration and its jurisdictions function. This makes them utterly dependent on the help and support of humanitarian organizations and volunteers.
Then there is a political unwillingness to provide the refugee assistance services with adequate means to receive these people in good conditions. Take the example of the procedure for applying for asylum in Ile-de-France. Since 2018, the Ofii (the French immigration office) has put in place a system of appointments by telephone. The newly arrived asylum seekers can no longer go directly to an asylum reception center but must call a special number to get an appointment first.
It is very difficult to get through to the operator of that line. People wait 40 to 45 minutes each time they call. They try to get through several times per day, for weeks and sometimes months, in order to get the appointment and start their asylum process. And these calls are not free; they cost migrants money.
As a result, the impossibility of getting a quick appointment creates a lot of stress and fear. They are scared to get in trouble with the police if caught without proof of being an asylum seeker.
Another example of the issue that migrants face is the implementation of dematerialized administrative services. It is a major obstacle for asylum seekers and refugees. Services such as the application for the renewal of the residence card and the récépissé, applying for the family reunification, or to obtain social rights, or getting an appointment, are accessible only through the internet. They cannot come to a reception center to submit an application or ask for an appointment. This has created a huge problem for these people.
On the one hand, having minimal computer and French language skills, they have difficulties understanding the administrative procedures. They have to be able to work on a computer, scan documents, and email them to the administration’s websites.
On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to get an appointment online because there is a very limited number of appointments available. These difficulties make an already challenging situation even worse. If migrants fail to take the necessary steps for their legal and administrative procedures to be done in time, they might face suspension of their social rights, not to mention the loss of their job or trouble with the police.
These people eventually turn to the organizations to seek help, but the organizations are not prepared to provide them with help concerning the new online procedures. Dom’Asile and other organizations are currently fighting with the prefectures to make them increase the number of available appointments and set up at least a few reception points for people who cannot do their paperwork online.
D: How did work with migrants and the way they are treated in France change in the past 10-15 years?
SK: I started working with Dom’Asile in 2004. Much has changed in these years as far as asylum seekers’ and refugees’ rights are concerned. The asylum and immigration law has been reformed twice in the last five 5-6 years: in 2015 by the François Hollande government and 2018 by Emmanuel Macron. Each reform has made the condition of immigrants in France more difficult.
For example, before 2015, there was no fixed time frame to apply for asylum. In 2015 a new law required that people ask for asylum within 120 days, once they have arrived in France. In 2018, it was further shortened to 90 days.
If applied after 90 days, the applicant’s file is examined under a «fast track procedure,» which gives a serious procedural disadvantage for granting the refugee status. Furthermore, it deprives them of any accommodation and asylum seekers’ allowance rights. This makes them extremely vulnerable.
A few years ago, the asylum seekers used to get the subsistence allowance through a bank account, which they could use as they wished. Today they have no bank accounts. They get the allowance through a prepaid card which they can only use in certain commercial stores to buy basic needs. There is no option to withdraw cash from these cards. This has put them in different types of trouble.
One of the problems is the loss of accommodation. More than half of the asylum seekers are not housed by the government in France. They find some kind of private accommodation where they have to pay a small rent. As the landlords can’t receive the rent by card, they ask migrants to pay it in cash, which they can’t do. As a result, they end up on the streets.
Many examples show that in the past 10-15 years, the government’s perception and attitude towards immigrants and asylum seekers have changed for the worse. Migrants are thought about as people who come to France solely to take advantage of its social benefits. Often the asylum seekers are categorized as ‘real’ or ‘fake’ refugees. This change in the perception and attitude reflects clearly in the new asylum and immigration laws. The new reforms have made these people’s lives more difficult as far as the administrative process or their social rights are concerned. The Dublin process (which obliges the asylum seeker to apply for asylum only in the European country in which they arrive first) causes huge suffering to people because if the administration finds that the person had traveled through another European country, it refuses their asylum application to be processed in France. The person is often sent to a detention center to deport them to the country they first arrived at.
There are also a few positive changes in the recent laws. Good measures have been taken to attract talented and qualified immigrants like the introduction of the «talent passport» and the deliverance of multi-annual resident cards.
D: What do you think the French government should do to improve how the country accepts and treats migrants? Is there something that can be done on the European level?
SK: I think Europe does not have to make an extra effort to save the lives and dignity of these people; it just has to live by the rules that it has set for itself. Europe, France, and the whole world had agreed to protect the refugees if they arrived in their countries, so they have the legal obligation to do this under international law. They should create a system by which people who need protection can come to Europe without further risking their lives, an option to arrive legally, instead of making crossing the borders by refugees more difficult by erecting the fences and walls.
It is completely against the international convention of refugee protection, which every country has signed. As far as France is concerned, it has always defined itself with certain values like fraternity, equality, liberty of all kinds, and in every aspect of life. Above all, it claims to be ‘le pays de droit,’ the country of rights. Yet, it fails to protect those rights and assure that more vulnerable people have access to them. I think France has a lot to do to live up to the idea with which it defines itself.
D: How is the activity of Dom’Asile perceived by the government and society?
SK: I think the work of Dom’Asile, as well as all the humanitarian organizations, is much appreciated in France. Many people care about this issue. It is a part of French tradition to speak up against injustice or take to the streets if the rights of people are not respected. In general, people show solidarity with humanitarian organizations. They support them financially or through volunteering.
But they do it silently. That is why you do not see these issues discussed in the media. We get a lot of support from people in the form of donations and through their participation as volunteers in our centers. In fact, all our help centers are run by volunteers. At Dom’Asile, we work with around 200 volunteers who accompany almost 10,000 asylum seekers. The coordination team has only four staff members. Our volunteers do the entire work of our association.
As far as the government is concerned, they are aware of the importance of the work we do, particularly in the domain of domiciliation for people who need an address and the help and information that we provide them in their languages. Still, I think that we often make them dislike us because we do not hesitate to denounce the illegal practices or their inefficacies to provide the exiled people decent essential services.
D: What is your prognosis about the future of migration in France?
SK: Migration is a reality not only because it is inevitable, but also it is indispensable for the progress of humanity, development, and enrichment of countries in terms of economy, culture, art, and science. One of the significant concerns for Europe in general and France, in particular, is its aging population. Attracting the economic migrants, be it for seasonal or highly skilled jobs, should be a genuine concern for people who make policies for France and for Europe.
The fact is that immigration has been a very hot issue here for a long time. Particularly during the elections, the politicians try to polarize the French people around this question. The deliberate prejudices are created against the immigrants. Biases based on fear, anger, and hate can change the behaviors and attitudes of people. We can easily observe it today in France. That is why, although people understand the need for immigrant labor and skilled workers for the development of their country, they seem reluctant when it comes to welcoming migrants.
To learn more about asylum procedure in France follow the link https://domasile.info/en/