Haroune Khelifati has spent the last three years struggling with French administration. The Algerian says that the introduction of paperless procedures has prevented him from defending his case -- he now risks deportation. NGOs are fighting alongside foreigners to restore human contact in state services. They have recently achieved an encouraging victory.
After graduating with honors and securing a spot on a select preparatory course to become a chartered accountant, Haroune Khelifati thought the hardest part was behind him.
"I am well integrated here, I live with my uncle and aunt, I have friends, I plan to take over the management of a bookshop. I still feel motivated to make my dreams come true," the 20-year-old Algerian told InfoMigrants. He arrived in France three years ago as a minor on a tourist visa.
Despite only holding this temporary visa, Haroune decided to stay in France with the support of his uncle and aunt in order to continue his secondary education in a private high school in Rouen, Seine-Maritime. With his baccalaureate in his pocket, he was accepted with flying colors on the preparatory course.
"Everything was going well until I turned 18. I've been trying now for more than two years to get a residence permit to continue my studies, but I keep having to face new difficulties. The French administration has become an impenetrable wall, it's impossible to speak with anyone to try to plead my case to stay."
Vulnerable to deportation
In France, when a minor reaches the age of 18, he or she is no longer protected by his or her 'child status'. They become de facto vulnerable to deportation unless their case receives urgent authorization.
The young man recounts that his file was first lost at the prefecture when he was still a minor. Having turned 18 in the meantime, he tried his luck with an application for a residence permit. After months of waiting with no news, the prefecture then announced that they had refused to examine his file because of a new regulation in force for a few weeks that required him to buy a €50 tax stamp.
Haroune then had to start his application all over again, this time required by the prefecture to submit it electronically. "Since the beginning of my process, I've been going in person to get things moving. Now that everything has to be done on the internet, I no longer get any answers. The procedure has become even more inhuman, you can't plead your case or explain your situation. It's as if our files get lost on the web and we don't stand a chance," he says.
Letters of support from the mayor of Rouen and the headmaster of his high school did not help him. Last summer, Haroune finally receive his first response from the administration to his application: an obligation to leave the territory (OQTF). It said that he had "hijacked his tourist visa for migratory purposes," explained the prefecture in an email sent to InfoMigrants.
The prefecture said that Haroune had entered France "recently", that he was single, without children and that he had "not shown that he no longer had personal and family ties in Algeria." They concluded: "In order to study in France, he should have and can still apply for a student visa from the consular authorities of his country, once he has returned there."
A petition as his only hope?
The move online does not appear to be the sole reason for Haroune's deportation order, as he had not followed the traditional protocol for obtaining residency papers. It did, however, prevent the young man from defending his case "in front of a human being".
The option of returning temporarily to Algeria is unthinkable for Haroune, who claims to have exams to take soon and who fears, because of the coronavirus pandemic, that he will no longer be able to return to France.
"The borders are closed, how long am I going to be stuck in Algeria while there are projects waiting for me here? The French administration makes me feel like a criminal", he says, adding that he is now considering taking public and media action, notably through a petition. "This strategy has paid off for another local high school student, so why not me?" he asks, referring to the case of Kenza Sahed in Sottevilles-lès-Rouen.
Another Algerian threatened with deportation
Kenza Sahed, an Algerian high school student who arrived in France in 2018, benefited "exceptionally" from a residence permit granted at the end of January by the prefecture when she was threatened with deportation. An online petition created by her classmates and elected representatives from Seine-Maritime had collected more than 6,500 signatures.
This type of mobilization for individual cases generally pays off, says Lise Faron, in charge of issues related to residency rights at Cimade, contacted by InfoMigrants. "But it does create the risk of creating a meritocratic system. It is rare that people manage to get together and advance the cause as a whole."
The digitalization of administrative procedures is an integral part of a new strategy promoted by the Ministry of the Interior since December 2019. It was accelerated in spring 2020 during the first lockdown in France, when all public services for migrants were closed.
Since then, applications, appointments and renewal of residence permits have increasingly had to be submitted via online services. "Under the guise of the health crisis, the desire for modernisation and efficiency gains, it is in fact a move by public services to put people at a distance. It has become one of the major sources of difficulties in accessing rights," says Faron.
The consequences are dramatic for foreigners. In the absence of slots available on the prefectures' websites to renew their papers, many risk finding themselves in an irregular situation.
A court decision that could change the situation
Despite a decision in 2019 by the Council of State stating that the use of electronic means could not be made mandatory, prefectures continue to use them throughout France, forcing people to take legal action to apply for residence permits or simply to have existing ones renewed.
The Cimade, as well as the Gisti and the Human Rights League, regularly take legal action alongside applicants. But many cases fall through the cracks, plunging dozens of people into hiding. "How many legal actions will our organizations still have to take, prefecture by prefecture, for the regulations to be respected and for digitalization to be proposed but not imposed on users? When will the prefectures propose methods of filing applications that respect people's rights," Cimade asks.
However, a decision handed down on February 18 by the Rouen administrative court could set a precedent throughout France. The court ruled that the administration cannot force someone to use electronic means only to file applications for residence permits, which had been temporarily imposed last spring by the prefecture.
"This is a considerable step forward for dozens of people whose applications have been unjustly rejected in Seine-Maritime and also for the laws for foreigners in general," says Faron. "The whole online system is affected by this court decision. In some departments, making an appointment via the internet is a real obstacle course, sometimes involving months of waiting".
On the strength of this decision by the administrative court of Rouen, Cimade is preparing similar actions for other prefectures.
As for Haroune, he is awaiting a court decision to repeal his OQTF and hopes to be able to reapply for a residence permit in the light of this recent progress.