The French government launched a program in March to open its first humanitarian corridor to Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Five Christian charity organizations signed an agreement to transfer 500 Syrian and Iraqi refugees to France over the next 18 months in cooperation with the French government. The goal is to transfer migrants directly by plane from Lebanon to France and reduce the deadly human traffic of the Mediterranean Sea route.

The Christian organisations, led by the Italian Catholic charity Sant’Egidio, included the France’s Protestant Federation and Secours catholique. The accord was signed at France’s Elysée Palace in the presence of French President François Hollande and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

France is the second European country, after Italy, to organise such an operation.

“This initiative proves that productive partnerships between a secular republic and religious organisations are possible, and even desired,” Hollande said during the ceremony.

What are the program’s advantages?

According to its organisers, the program has several advantages: it allows refugees to safely travel to France by plane “thanks to a partnership with Air France”, and thus avoid the dangerous Mediterranean Sea route. It will also cut into the profits of the human traffickers on whom migrants depend.

“It’s unbearable to see entire boatloads of dead bodies arrive here,” said Valérie Régnier, president of Sant’Egidio. “We wanted to go to the source of the problem.”

The charity alliance will cover all of the program’s costs. The French government will not spend a cent on the new arrivals. This was obviously an attractive offer for the state. But why were the NGOs ready to step into the role of refugee protection, which usually a basic function of the government?

“It’s definitely unusual,” Aude Millet-Lopez, in charge of communication for the Protestant Federation, told InfoMigrants. “But for the moment, we just want to raise awareness. We’re hoping that this initiative will change the government’s view of the migrant crisis, and we hope that at some point our politicians will put a more generous national policy in place.”

How will the project work?

The initial stage of the program will transfer 500 migrants who have been chosen as the most vulnerable: “people who are injured or sick, pregnant women, or people who have received death threats,” said Millet-Lopez. Although the initiative is organised by Christian groups, “our acceptance of people is unconditional”, without any religious criteria, according to François Clavairoly, president of France’s Protestant Federation.

“The idea is to start preparing the arrival while they are still in Lebanon,” said Millet-Lopez. Representatives from the organisations will take care of as much of the legal paperwork as possible from Lebanon. The 500 refugees to be transferred have gone through screening and were “selected” by Sant’Egidio, which oversaw the transfer of 700 refugees to Italy via a similar program in 2016. Then there will be a final validation of each case by the French government. The NGOs will also handle the refugees’ asylum applications in France.

Once they have arrived on French soil, the refugees will be met by a team from Secours Catholiques, then transferred to host families throughout France, who will provide them with food and housing. The Christian groups will continue to be their first line of support, guiding refugees during their integration in France, helping them to find French classes, to enrol their children in school and to search for work.

French Christian groups have a long history of helping migrants. More than 2,000 migrants were hosted between September 2015 and autumn 2016 by Catholic aid groups, while an additional 450 were taken in by Protestant groups.


Author: Charlotte Boitiaux


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