An interview conducted by an OFPRA officer in Niger in early 2018, with an asylum seeker | Photo: Mehdi Chebil/InfoMigrants
An interview conducted by an OFPRA officer in Niger in early 2018, with an asylum seeker | Photo: Mehdi Chebil/InfoMigrants

Having to apply for asylum from abroad is not a new idea, but for some time it has been brandished as the big solution in the fight against irregular immigration. Defended by far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour as well as right-wing candidate Valérie Pécresse for Les Républicains, the measure is, however, contrary to international law.

What they say:

In one of the key points of her campaign manifesto, extreme far-right candidate Marine Le Pen wants "asylum applications to be filed and processed abroad in French consulates and embassies." This would mean that "only people who have obtained refugee status would be able to come to France."

This rule would apply to adults as well as to unaccompanied minors. "The law may authorize the arrival in France only of people who have obtained refugee status and not of people awaiting a decision," she specified. The proposal was already high on the far right agenda in the 2017 presidential election, and is regularly defended by Le Pen in the media.

For this upcoming election, this idea has also appeared in the campaign proposals for Les Républicains (LR). Their right-wing candidate Valérie Pécresse has said she wants to "force asylum applications to be filed abroad or at the border."

"If asylum applications were filed at our embassies abroad, we will be better able to receive the applicants. If they have their asylum papers when they arrive, we can welcome them right away, integrate them, help them," she explained on France Inter radio station on February 22, while defending what she believes is "a virtuous system for real asylum seekers." For "those who arrive without a validated application," they will be "placed in open centers at the border, while their application is being examined. This is what is done in Greece," she added.

On the same airwaves, far right candidate Éric Zemmour had defended the same project last December. The Republican Éric Ciotti, unsuccessful candidate in the presidential race against Pécresse, was chanting the same mantra, advocating for "the examination of asylum applications in areas close to conflict zones in our consular offices, either at the border."

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What are they talking about?

The right to asylum is internationally recognized by the 1951 Refugee Convention, and enshrined in the French Constitution. It allows for the protection of any person who is a victim of persecution. From abroad, it is possible to apply for an asylum visa from the French authorities at your place of residence, embassies or consulates. However, this specific visa only allows you to travel into France. Once in France, the applicant "must go to the prefecture of his or her place of residence to obtain an asylum application form," according to the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (Ofpra), which is responsible for granting refugee status.

It is therefore not currently legally possible to file an asylum application directly outside the country where one wishes to find refuge, the person must reach French territory by his or her own means. This is the rule that Le Pen, Pécresse and Zemmour want to change.

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Why this is impossible:

First, because asking for asylum outside the borders of the host country is contrary to international law. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the host country has an obligation to provide asylum seekers on its territory with "access to fair and effective asylum procedures, health care, employment, education and social insurance, as well as the right to freedom of movement."

The 1951 Convention also prohibits countries from returning persons present on their territory or who have arrived at their border to a country where they would be at risk of persecution. In other words, turning away a person seeking asylum is illegal. This is precisely what the candidates' proposal would do. For if this proposal becomes law, the authorities could ask people who spontaneously present themselves at the border to apply for asylum to go back to their own country to make an application there, i.e. to a place of danger.

Countries that have ratified the Refugee Convention are obliged to protect refugees that are on their territory in accordance with its terms. Outsourcing the asylum application is also a violation of European law.

Hungary openly violated this law in October 2020, when Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government decided that asylum applications could no longer be submitted on Hungarian territory, but from a Hungarian embassy abroad outside the EU. In July 2021, the European Commission referred the country to the European Court of Justice, accusing it of "illegally restricting the right to asylum."

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If the French candidates' proposition is unenforceable in the eyes of the law, it also doesn't take into account the day-to-day reality of forced migration and exile. Not everyone has the possibility to apply for asylum in their own country or in a neighboring country, for various reasons. These include "no financial or material means, fear of being identified as wishing to come to France as refugees, insecurity about their safety, and uncertainty about the country where they wish to seek asylum," says Amnesty International.

Proponents claim that obtaining asylum abroad would avoid, for example, dangerous sea crossings. Amnesty on the other hand insists that the measure would in fact "jeopardize the rights of people seeking safety and protection, stigmatize them, penalize them and may endanger their lives."

The UN Assistant High Commissioner for International Protection, Gillian Triggs, is also strongly opposed to this procedure. Triggs warned in May 2021 that outsourcing arrangements would not prevent "desperate refugees from undertaking perilous sea crossings in search of safety."

"On the contrary, they will intensify risks, encourage the use of new routes and exacerbate pressures on bordering states," said Triggs.

 

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