Syrian refugees agree to stay in France, despite negative reputation
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France has agreed to take in 24,000 refugees over the next two years, but few people appear to want to come to France. Last week France offered a fast-track asylum application for 1,000 Syrians and Iraqis who had ended up in Germany. Only 600 people agreed to come. They are now living in temporary housing throughout the Paris area. One is a sports and leisure complex in Cergy, north of Paris.
One of the 96 temporary residents is Namaat, 29. She left Homs with her husband and three daughters in August. She would not have believed you if you had told her two weeks ago that she would be on the outskirts of Paris.
“At first, we wanted to [go to] Germany,” she said, sitting at a picnic table outside, taking in the rare sun rays on a September afternoon and watching her children play on a patch of grass.
The family left Homs and drove to Lebanon, where they took a flight to Turkey and then made the now-infamous crossing to Greece, to the island of Chios, in a rubber boat.
From Chios, they took a ferry to Athens and a train to Macedonia. Then they walked to Serbia.
“Walking was difficult and dangerous, and very tiring,” she says.
They eventually ended up in Munich, where they met the French officials offering an expedited asylum application: two weeks for approval, instead of the usual minimum of six months, along with temporary housing, which many asylum seekers in France do not receive.
Namaat and her family accepted this proposal, and that is how she found herself at this sports centre in Cergy on a lake in a curve of the Oise River.
The dorm complex around a courtyard usually houses school groups and summer camps. Heba, 24, gives a tour of the dorms, showing the bunk beds upstairs on a hallway with a shared bathroom.
She is one of the few women here, and shares a room with her best friend Sema, 25, who travelled with her from their home in Aleppo.
Heba says she spent two years working to raise money to pay traffickers to get her to Europe.
“It’s terrible in Aleppo,” she says, standing by her bed. “My family is suffering now. There is nothing to live for in Aleppo.”
Like most of the people here, Heba and Sema were aiming for Germany.
“Everybody says Germany is good and there are opportunities to find jobs and continue our studies,” she says. And by everybody, she means other refugees who have come before her.
Nobody talks about France
The best countries are Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, says Heba, and “nobody knows about France."
It is no wonder that nobody knows, as there are not many people to send word back: Since 2011, France has given refugee status to 4,500 Syrians, a very small number of the 3 million people who have left the country.
Now that France has committed to take in 24,000 people (added to the 9,000 it said it would take in this summer), there is an impetus to convince people to come, and stay.
The French asylum officers in Munich were very encouraging: “They said, ‘welcome to France, we can give you everything like in Germany',” says Heba. “They say we can continue our studying and we can find jobs and a home. This offer sounds good for us, and so we decide to come here.”
Though it was not what she expected, she wants to stay. She was studying computer networking in Syria, and she'd like to continue.
Downstairs in the lounge, a group of six young people sit around a table, drinking coffee and checking their mobile phones, trying to get the Wifi connection to work.
Ranging in age from 18 to 26 years old, they are all from Damascus, though they met on the road. Mataz, 21, was studying law. When he left he, too, wanted to get to Germany.
But once he arrived in Munich, he says there were people of different nationalities, many posing as Syrians. He saw France's offer as a way out of the chaos, though he is still unsure he wants to stay.
“I'm a little lost,” he says. “I would like to go to the UK, because I know a little English, but no French.”
France, he says, does not have a good reputation.
“Everybody talks about Germany as the best country in Europe for us Syrians,” says Ali, 37, who is a bit older than most people here.
Friends of his who came to France before him have only bad things to report.
“The first six months they lived on the streets. There is no place to live, no money,” he says.
Ali spent a year in Istanbul before deciding to come to Europe, where he had a chance of getting refugee status, and therefore the chance to bring over his wife and three young children, who are still in Damascus.
When he got to Munich he considered going to Dusseldorf, where he has an uncle, but the large number of refugees worried him. France was promising a quick way to get legal documents.
He was sceptical at first.
“I spoke with them for about two or three hours,” he says. He brought up his concerns, but the asylum officers reassured him that they were offering something different. “They told me, ‘we promise you it will be faster than Germany’. And that's what I need.”
Now that Ali is in France, living in a dorm in Cergy, he recognises his good luck, which not all Syrians have. He says a Syrian man came to the gates of the housing complex asking for help, and he was turned away.
“I don't know where he is going to sleep,” says Ali.
France has now stopped taking refugees from Germany. But if France wants to meet its own promises and humanitarian obligations, it is going to have to change its reputation and start reaching out to refugees in France or on their way, to convince them that France is a place they want to stay.