Refugees in France stuck in limbo

Stephen Beard Sep 13, 2011

Refugees in France stuck in limbo

Stephen Beard Sep 13, 2011

KAI RYSSDAL: When the revolutions happened this spring in the Middle East, more than a million people crossed borders from one country to another, either to get away from the fighting or to find new work. Europe saw it happening and braced itself for a flood of refugees that never really came. In the end, only 50,000 people or so wound up in Europe. Half of them from Tunisia, and most of them living in France.

Marketplace’s Stephen Beard went to Paris to see how they’ve fared.

STEPHEN BEARD: Protest in Paris after police arrest dozens of Tunisian migrants. Since more than a thousand arrived here in the spring, hundreds have been detained. Many deported.

Not quite the reception they were expecting, says Tunisian-born French lawyer Samia Mahktouf.

SAMIA MAHKTOUF: That’s one of the reasons that they decide to come here — to see liberty. The first sentence they have on their mouth when they arrive and when I talk to them is: France Liberte.

But after the toppling of their dictator in January, they have freedom back home. Tarek Benhiba runs a Franco-Tunisian Association here. He says the migrants’ reasons for crossing the Mediterranean — and entering Europe illegally — are mainly economic.

TARIK BENHIBA: They crossed the sea to try their luck, to make their dream a reality. A dream to be better, to have job, to get money.

Six months on it’s still only a dream. Denied permission to work, the migrants have run out of cash.

In this small cafe, the migrants get free food and free Internet access — all paid for by the Paris authorities. Until last week the city also provided 300 beds a night. That largesse has come to an end. Many now sleep on the streets. But most, like 24-year-old construction worker Mohammed Toussi, are determined to stay. He says the economic situation in Tunisia is still negative. Why go back? If it were positive he says he would have stayed. He would not have come here.

The French government has offered to fly the migrants home and give them 300 euros each, about $420. Seventeen-year-old welder Issam Massodi isn’t tempted to take up the offer.

They offer us 300 euros to leave, but we spent 2,000 to come, he says. And they offer us 300 to go. You know many Tunisians died making this journey. They died at sea.

The migrants’ French supporters say they should be allowed to stay and work. Their remittances back home will help support Tunisia’s transition to democracy. But the French government is unmoved.

Jacques Myard is a deputy with the ruling center right UMP party.

JACQUES MYARD: France has clearly said that those who come to our soil without any permission as illegal immigrants will be sent back home!

The French economy is in a mess, he says. Unemployment is running at almost 10 percent. France cannot afford to allow in thousands of migrants to compete for jobs. And it’s not just an economic issue.

MYARD: I don’t know if you know how to make mayonnaise.

Achieving social cohesion, he says, is much like making that French sauce.

MYARD: You do it by mixing mustard, eggs and oil slowly. It’s the same thing for immigration.

He says a sudden influx of many thousands of migrant workers would be a recipe for social disaster. But by tightening border controls in response to the Arab Spring, refugee groups say France and the rest of Europe have shown only fear and a narrow economic self-interest. And that may not win many friends in the Middle East’s newly emerging democracies.

In Paris, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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