Syrian asylum-seekers face a tough path in France
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Nearly two million Syrians have fled the conflict in their homeland, heading mostly for neighbouring countries. The lucky ones manage to make it to West European countries such as France. But the struggle is not over when they arrive.
From her new home in central France, Lina K. has been obsessively monitoring the situation in her homeland. “When we see what’s happening in Syria, we thank God everyday for our good luck, for the chance to be in France,” she says.
The 42-year-old mother of three left the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in early 2012 as the conflict between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was turning into a brutal civil war.
Along with her husband and kids, Lina – who did not want her real name revealed – fled her comfortable home in the bustling Syrian commercial capital, abandoning family, friends and cherished memories of a lifestyle that has all but disappeared these days.
Since the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011, the death toll has mounted to a staggering 110,000. In late August the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR ) sounded the alarm, announcing that nearly two million Syrians have left their country. The majority of them have found refuge in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, which are struggling to cope with the massive population influx.
Lina’s family is in the lucky bracket of refugees who have managed to reach a West European nation.
"We thought about France because we have many family members who have been living here for many years," said Lina. But having family in France was no guarantee for obtaining a French visa. When they did get their visas, “it was a miracle for us,” she explains, her face breaking into a weak smile. "Despite our broken dreams in Syria, we are pleased that France has welcomed us and has allowed us to raise our children in safety,” she said.
Building new lives
As a lawyer for the Paris-based refugee NGO, CAAR (Comité d’Aide Aux Réfugiés), Mathilde Schroeder has worked with many people like Lina over the past few months.
“We help them and accompany them when they arrive in France,” explained Schroeder. “Often, some of the new arrivals do not even speak Arabic – they only speak Kurdish. We are in contact with organisations that help them translate their documents and do the administrative work required to obtain a refugee status in France. We even work with them after they have obtained their refugee status,” said Schroeder.
Many of the refugees are not as fortunate as Lina and her family. "We meet people who have fled for their lives. Some of them are traumatised, they don’t speak French and they have difficulties even finding a street. We try to find them a home or host them in centres for asylum-seekers,” she said.
The Paris-based NGO Revivre – which means “relive” in French – was founded in 2004 to aid Syrian political refugees. Sabreen al-Rassace, a volunteer at Revivre, has also witnessed the difficulties new arrivals face adjusting to a strange new life in France.
Following an increased flow of asylum-seekers since May 2012, Revivre has come up with a list of volunteer host families who house applicants for a week or up to 10 days, so new arrivals can take their cues and learn lessons from their hosts.
Al-Rassace notes that asylum seekers coming from Syria are “a real reflection of Syrian society: all the religious communities are represented and all social classes, Syrian regime deserters and well-known opposition figures, doctors, traders and professionals.”
A long wait for refugee status
While a visa to a West European country may seem like a godsend for people fleeing a deadly conflict, the difficulties do not end once they’ve landed in countries such as France. That’s when they confront their next challenge: a cumbersome administrative process that al-Rassace calls “inhuman”.
“It’s just outrageous that there are no special measures, even temporary or exceptional ones, to facilitate the process,” she complains.
But officials at OFPRA (French Office for Refugees and Stateless Persons) – the state body charged with processing asylum cases – say they are doing “everything possible to make things easier for Syrians”.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, OFPRA director Pascal Brice insisted that “the path of any asylum seeker is in itself terrible”.
"Concerning Syrian asylum-seekers, we want to have as short a response time as their situation permits,” he says referring to the time required for applicants to be granted refugee status in France.
According to Brice, the average response time for asylum-seekers is between six months and two years. “It’s now only three months for Syrian applicants,” he notes.
In 2012, 650 Syrians filed asylum application with OFPRA. “We have exceeded this figure with about 700 applications in the first seven months of 2013 alone," notes Brice. “Nearly 95% of Syrian applicants get a positive response. This is significant given that the average acceptance rate is 24%.”
'Syria has become like a big prison'
But for many refugee aid groups, France’s response is still insignificant. “Yes, the figures are on the rise in the rest of Europe, where 25,000 Syrians have been received. But this is ridiculous,” said Pierre Henry, head of the Paris-based NGO, FTA (France Terre d’Asile) in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Henry called on European leaders to "unlock the doors to the EU’s borders,” adding that, “Symbolically, France cannot sit back on this issue. We have to take political responsibility. We need to make a move – like countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland or Sweden,” he said.
Earlier this month, Sweden became the first EU country to announce it will give asylum and permanent resident status to all Syrian refugees who apply.
But while some EU countries have been speeding up their asylum processing measures, for the refugees the real challenge lies in making it to Europe.
“It's simple: no visa, no future,” explained Razan M., a 22-year-old architectural student who did not want to provide her real name.
After several unsuccessful attempts to get a visa from the French Embassy in Damascus, she finally got a German visa.
"I took a plane to Berlin and then came to Paris by train since my visa is valid throughout the Schengen area,” she said. France was her destination of choice since her older sister has been living here for many years. "Syria has become like a big prison for young people," she told FRANCE 24.
"I have many friends who have tried to get visas, but it’s almost impossible for young people,” she explains. The only choice, she adds, is an expensive, dangerous clandestine trip to a European country.