Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of legal foreign residents in France who received family reunification approvals have been unable to get visas for their relatives. They say the suspension of these visa applications is "discriminatory".
Since he moved to France 17 years ago, Mustapha Belhadj has never seen himself as "different" in any way. The 50-year-old Algerian national is a legal resident in France, where he works as an adviser to poultry farmers. An amateur athlete, Belhadj is well known in his community in Ancenis, a picturesque town in Brittany, for his involvement with local sports associations. "In my mind, I don't even consider myself a foreigner," he explains.
In recent months, however, Belhadj has been made painfully aware of his difference in his adopted home. Married since April 2019 to an Algerian woman, he has been unable to bring his wife to France since August. His wife has been unable to obtain a visa from the French consulate despite the approval of her family reunification application, a process that took over a year.
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, certain visa application procedures in areas where the virus is considered to be active were blocked in March. But since the summer reopening of the borders, some applications have been resumed for specific categories, such as spouses and children of French nationals, students, teachers and certain foreign employees, including seasonal workers.
Applications submitted by families of foreign nationals legally residing in France however remain blocked by the authorities. Hundreds of people are currently trapped in this situation.
'My husband has not seen his son since he was born'
The delays during a period of lockdowns and isolation, have not been easy for Belhadj. "It's very hard not to have your other half by your side. For me, it's discrimination. We work, we pay our taxes, we should have the same rights as everyone living on French soil," he notes.
Belhadj and a few other people in the same situation have hooked up on a Facebook group "Regroupement Familial Conjoints de Résidents" – or Family Reunification for Spouses of Residents – which has more than 7,700 followers.
Some of the posts on the Facebook group include testimonies of legal French residents who despair over the delays and opacity of the process. "I’m beginning to lose hope of joining up with my husband who has not seen his son since he was born. My son will soon be two years old," laments an Algerian national.
While most of the posts are of Algerian citizens, there are nationals of other countries, such as Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, to name a few, who are also affected.
'Disproportionately’ infringing ‘several fundamental rights'
The pandemic seems to have justified delays that already plagued the process, many complain. Mohamed, a 31-year-old Moroccan employed on a permanent contract as a chartered accountant in the Paris region, believes that's the case with his file. In 2017, he got married in his home country. "I meet all the material conditions to support my wife and our family reunification application was authorized in 2019," he explains. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, nothing has happened.
"Every day I see French people getting visas, whereas for us, nothing has changed. If the idea is to protect us from COVID-19, then why issue visas to French families?" he asks. "My wife keeps breaking down, she tells me, 'I get the feeling we will never be reunited'. And I'm not sleeping. Psychologically, I'm not doing well.”
On December 16, nine associations, including the League for Human Rights, took up the case and referred it to the Conseil d'État, or Council of State, which acts both as legal advisor of the executive branch and as the supreme court for administrative justice in France. "This decision (...) disproportionately infringes several fundamental rights in particular, the right to asylum, the right to live with one's family and the right to respect for the best interests of the child," the associations said in a press release, denouncing the "wall of embassies and consulates".
Mohamed, too, referred the matter to the Conseil d'État in the hope of unblocking his situation. "We were refused, like many others. Our situation does not represent an emergency, according to the judge," he said.
Contacted by InfoMigrants, the Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration (The immigration office in France, Ofii) noted that the list of priorities for visa beneficiaries was determined by the interior ministry’s inter-ministerial crisis center and that the health crisis was slowing down procedures, with the closure of some consulates in particular.