France has only relocated 284 refugees from Greece and Italy, despite having housing for 5,200 people ready. It’s a paradox that epitomises the failure of the EU’s refugee hotspots. EURACTIV France reports.
The establishment of an organised migration route within the European Union is still struggling to get off the ground. France provides a perfect illustration of the problems the plan faces.
Several months after the EU’s decision to create refugee hotspots in Greece and Italy, only a very small number of those arriving in these countries have been processed under the European relocation system, according to Kléber Arhoul, a prefect in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region and France’s national coordinator for the hosting of refugees.
In a hearing with French MPs from the delegation charged with assessing the efficiency of European mechanisms to deal with exceptional migratory flows, Arhoul gave a scathing review of the existing European mechanism. The relocation plan adopted by the EU aimed to redistribute 160,000 refugees across the EU over two years.
Economic migrants and refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan prefer to try their luck on the migrant routes towards Germany or Sweden, rather than to rely on the possibility of having their claims processed in their countries of arrival, whose systems are already overwhelmed.
“The planned relocations have turned out to be an optional affair. In practice, the migrants that arrive in Greece or Italy have a choice between an official relocation system, which is slow, demanding and restrictive, and the option to move almost freely to Germany, Austria, Sweden or France,” Arhoul said.
“This competition between the official and unofficial systems has completely undermined the effectiveness of the hotspots. It stops them playing an effective role in the organisation of migratory flows,” he added.
As a result, France has so far taken in a very small proportion of its quota of refugees agreed under the European relocation mechanism, despite the availability of housing. A total of 284 refugees, including 188 from Greece and 96 from Italy, have been accepted for relocation in France, according to the prefect.
But he added that France had notified its European partners of “a greater capacity, and offered to host 1,340 people under the mechanism”.
As its contribution to the EU’s relocation efforts, France has committed to hosting an extra 31,000 refugees over two years. Most of these refugees would come from Italy or Greece. In total, “accommodation has been found for 5,200 of these refugees”, Arhoul said.
Many of the French communities that have been asked to contribute to the solution have had trouble preparing the right kind of housing.
“Local politicians made four and five-room properties available, thinking that refugee housing requests would come from families. But so far we have only had requests from single men, so there is more need for studio apartments,” the prefect explained.
Historically one of Europe’s more open countries to refugees, France recorded 19,900 asylum applications in 2015, an increase of 15,000 (24%) on 2014.
But the situation in France does not compare to that in Germany, where the majority of the million refugees that arrived in 2015 have claimed asylum.
Early data from 2016 show that the number of migrant arrivals will remain very high. “In January 2016, Greece recorded 60,000 entrants. That is ten times the number recorded for the same period last year,” Arhoul said.
The crisis in Calais
Beyond the challenges of the relocation system, France also has to deal with an exceptional situation on its North coast, where thousands of migrants trying to reach the United Kingdom have crowded into makeshift camps in and around Calais.
To help clear camps like the Calais “Jungle”, the French authorities have established a number of reception and guidance centres where migrants can “take the time to think about the next stage of their migration route”, as Arhould put it.
Despite a great deal of criticism from NGOs involved in helping the refugees in France, these centres have managed to encourage significant numbers of them to abandon their attempts to cross the Chanel and apply for asylum in France.
“We have 102 reception and guidance centres in France, which have hosted 2,700 migrants. 80% of these have then chosen to rethink their objectives and apply for asylum in France,” the prefect said.
The European Union has decided to distribute 160,000 refugees between its member states over two years. This only represents a very small proportion of the millions of refugees that have left their home countries in the Middle East and Africa since the beginning of 2015.
So far, the relocation programme has been met with hostility in a number of Eastern European countries, like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, and is struggling to get off the ground.