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French MPs vote to toughen asylum laws, tests government majority

View of the French National Assembly, April 16 2018, Paris.
View of the French National Assembly, April 16 2018, Paris. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Several MPs from the ruling Republic on the Move party (REM) on Friday voted against controversial measures to toughen the country's asylum procedures. The plans, which include speeding up the deportations of rejected asylum seekers, have met strong criticism.


President Emmanuel Macron's asylum and immigration law was meant to be voted by Friday. But after a week of debate, lawmakers were still poles apart, with only eight of the 42 articles passed.

But even the ones that were voted have split Macron's Republic on the Move (REM) party.

Several of his MPs voted against articles 5 and 6, which envisage reducing the time allowed to file an asylum application from 120 to 90 days, and giving rejected asylum seekers just two weeks instead of one month to lodge an appeal.

"It is a big change, a negative one," Radek Ficek, asylum director at the NGO France Terre d'Asile, told RFI.

It means applicants will have less time to "work on the appeal with a lawyer, with interpreters," he says, pointing to the fact that the reduced time-frame will give applicants insufficient time to prepare for what is often a technical and complex procedure.

The other bone of contention that has rattled REM MPs is the proposal to deport rejected asylum seekers pending their appeal, as stipulated in article 8. Six REM lawmakers voted against, while three abstained.

As for plans to process asylum requests in a different language to that of the seeker, four lawmakers also abstained.

Uneasy alliance

Experts say the new measures have laid bare the contradictions within Macron's REM party.

"We have people from the left, people from the right, and now the question of values is being raised, it's never been raised before," explains Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, a political communications expert.

Some see aspects of the bill as a betrayal of their liberal principles and members of the ruling party have tabled 200 amendments.

"We talked about the economy, but everyone agrees a little bit on the economy. Now, a lot of young MPs from the left and the centre left are wondering whether they can go on with a repressive policy which is a lot about being anti-immigration but without really saying it," Moreau-Chevrolet told RFI.

Critics say the new measures erode the rights of the vulnerable, particularly plans to increase the maximum administrative detention period for those awaiting deportation from 45 to 90 days.

"Putting people in prison so that there are less migrants, is not what I call regulation, it's repression," Esther Benbassa, a senator with France's Green party told RFI.

"We know what's going on, the government wants to deter people from coming here. This text is unacceptable because of its cruelty, and lack of pragmatism."

'No cruelty'

French authorities say they want to create a more efficient system to sift out genuine refugees from those simply seeking a better life in France.

"What is cruel today is making asylum seekers wait an average of fourteen months, sometimes years, before their application gets processed," Aurore Bergé, spokesperson of the ruling Republic on the Move party told RFI, dismissing rumours of a party split.

"The majority is united behind this bill. Today, we must ensure that asylum seekers who are eligible for asylum, get integrated quickly, and those who don't qualify get sent back," she says.

Concerning the detention period, Bergé insists that 90 days is a "maximum limit," and that the government's objective is in no way to keep people locked up for that amount of time.

The measure is necessary she says, "because France currently doesn't have access to what's called a consular visa, which allows anyone who is rejected to be sent back to their country of origin."

Macron is under pressure to toughen his policy in a country where 63 percent told a BVA survey in February that there are too many immigrants, and has promised a policy that that mixes "efficiency" with "humanity".

Sending back rejected asylum seekers

Radek Ficek from the NGO France Terre d'Asile acknowledges that the government must deal with the population of rejected asylum seekers. France received over 40,000 asylum requests in 2017.

"We have an important part of asylum seekers who are rejected or migrants who have no rights to be protected as refugees, we have to find a solution for them," says Ficek.

Nonetheless, he warns that France must only send rejected asylum seekers back, "if possible. For a big part of this population, it is not possible. Because it is simply too dangerous for them."

The asylum bill also paves the way for the reunification of those granted asylum with their families, a move that has been slammed by the right-wing opposition, who fear a covert attempt to integrate illegal migrants.

Debate over the controversial bill is expected to continue right up until the weekend, and is likely to pass, despite opposition.

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