A migrant waits in a park at Porte d'Aubervilliers in the north of Paris for the Utopia 56 association to find emergency accommodation for her family. Credit: Mehdi Chebil
A migrant waits in a park at Porte d'Aubervilliers in the north of Paris for the Utopia 56 association to find emergency accommodation for her family. Credit: Mehdi Chebil

A French parliamentary report presented Wednesday, September 23, to the National Assembly found the government could do better to improve the integration of refugees and asylum seekers in France, even if significant progress has been made since 2018. InfoMigrants spoke to the authors of the report.

"A real effort has been made but progress remains to be made": French parliamentarians Stella Dupont of the ruling LREM (La République En Marche) party and Jean-Noël Barrot of the centrist MoDem (Mouvement Démocrate) presented a report on the integration of refugees and asylum seekers in France to the National Assembly on Wednesday, September 23. According to the report, refugees are slightly better off than asylum seekers, who are still struggling to access employment and language training.

The two elected officials recommend, among other things, making it easier to obtain work permits and access French language courses as soon as asylum applications are filed.

InfoMigrants spoke with Stella Dupont and Jean-Noël Barrot.

InfoMigrants: What progress have you observed in terms of the integration and employment of refugees and asylum seekers in France since 2018?

Stella Dupont: Concerning asylum seekers, the main change is that they are now allowed to work six months after submitting their applications (provided they apply for it) as opposed to nine months previously. This is a great step forward, except that in reality, very few asylum seekers have access to work, because obtaining authorization is a difficult path for them as well as for employers, who must pay a tax, among other things.

When it comes to statutory refugees, data from the OFII [Office français de l'immigration et de l'intégration] shows real progress in learning French. Official measures to double or triple the number of hours of French classes proved particularly beneficial for foreigners who had the lowest level of language skills upon arrival, some of whom could neither read nor write. Thanks to the increase in the number of class hours, the number of people who completed the basic French A-1 level increased by 16%. It’s therefore necessary to continue and even strengthen the system. Germany is going up to 900 hours of language training.

Jean-Noël Barrot: The most effective measure has indeed been doubling or tripling the number of hours of French language lessons. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that those who had a basic French level and who went from 50 to 100 class hours saw no progress at all. Efforts should therefore be concentrated on those with a low level, especially those who went from 200 hours to 600 hours.

Another notable progress, was that nine of the 10 initiatives adopted by the National Strategy for Integration and Reception – which the government unveiled in July 2018 – have resulted in concrete decisions and measures. Only one of these initiatives was not yet implemented: the one encouraging public employers to recruit refugees for apprenticeships.

InfoMigrants: On the other hand, what are the sectors lagging behind? What measures do you propose?

Stella Dupont: Access to work for asylum seekers must be simplified. For refugees, it is simpler, but it must be noted that cooperation between the OFII and Pôle emploi [the French employment agency] is in its infancy. For example, we have no data on the unemployment rate among refugees in France. We are therefore asking for more transparency and we’ve proposed the creation of employment counselors specialized in accompanying refugees, to facilitate their access to employment.

As the asylum procedure is very long – 12 months on average – foreigners find themselves in difficulty, blocked and on-hold, as soon as they arrive in France. A German study that we cited in our report reveals that foreigners who were able to access employment upon arrival in Germany were able to enter and remain in the labour market on a long-term basis. Conversely, those who were able to find work after 12 months found themselves more durably out of work. The more we postpone language training and access to work, the more we put foreigners in difficulty.

Along with employment, access to language training must also come sooner. Ideally, all asylum seekers should be able to take courses as soon as they submit their applications. If this is not feasible, at a minimum, claimants from countries with a high rate of international protection, such as Afghans or Eritreans, should be able to begin classes as soon as they arrive. There is no risk in offering more language courses to foreigners; on the contrary, it’s a way of learning French culture and contributing to its influence. Because even if in the end, asylum seekers continue their journey in another country, they will always have this small part of our culture with them, this can only be positive.

Jean-Noël Barrot: As far as refugees are concerned, we need to step up the pace of the Republican Integration Contract, because we know that language acquisition is decisive for the integration trajectory. Currently, an asylum seeker who becomes a refugee has to wait an average of one year for his or her file to be processed, not counting any possible delays in appealing to the CNDA [Cour nationale du droit d'asile, which reviews appeals]. From there, there’s still an average wait of four months between the protection decision and entry into language training, as they have to wait for the police prefecture to issue a residence permit before starting. This additional wait is unnecessary.

Moreover, it’s essential to get out of the statistical fog in which we find ourselves. We don't even know the unemployment rate of refugees. And although asylum seekers can apply for a work permit after six months, as opposed to nine months previously, this measure does not seem to be applied. The last statistics we have on this matter date back to 2017: less than 1,000 asylum-seekers have obtained a work permit, which is 1% of their total number. We advocate more transparency and simplification of procedures.

InfoMigrants: In addition to learning French and employment, what do you think is essential for successful integration?

Stella Dupont and Jean-Noël Barrot: Our report only deals with a tiny part of integration, there are many other aspects that come into play, such as the question of benefits, as well as health or cultural and societal integration. But the top priority is housing. Despite the creation of many accommodation places in recent years, it is clear that this is not enough and that the living conditions of many foreigners in our country are very difficult.

InfoMigrants: How could the new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, presented on September 23 by the European Commission, have an impact on asylum seekers in France?

Stella Dupont: Solidarity seems to have been placed at the heart of the pact, which is no small matter because in Europe, there is a tendency to want to combine the political visions of all the 27 member states. I think that letting solidarity be expressed differently from one country to another is not such a bad compromise. It is unfortunately the decision that seems the most judicious because imposing a refugee in a country that would be hostile to his reception and integration will put him in difficulty, it is counterproductive.

Moreover, the shock of Lesbos is real, so it should contribute to raising awareness of the urgency to act and the negotiations around the text should therefore quickly lead to concrete reform. It is out of the question to wait for more years.

Jean-Noël Barrot: I am delighted that the European Commission has taken up this subject, which is a step in the right direction, that of making the countries responsible for their actions.

(Note: This is a translation of the original interview in French)


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