Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population

After Torture, Homelessness Is Lucky

TOULON, France, Oct 4 2011 (IPS) - When Saoul decided to take the risk of leaving Chechnya for France, he could not imagine how much trouble protection could mean once he got here.

The danger of leaving was great, balanced against the perhaps greater danger of staying. Saoul’s brother was an active combatant during the first war between Chechnya and Russia, before being imprisoned. Saoul (not his real name) followed his brother into prison, but a bribe got him out – for a while. He was captured again a few months later, and let out on condition he came back to give names.

Through those two periods in jail he was tortured repeatedly. He still carries signs of injury, and serious cognitive and memory trouble.

Leaving behind one brother in prison and another dead, Saoul left Chechnya illegally with his family and managed to reach France – a country that claims to be a champion of human rights.

He landed in France, and entered a maze. And he was among the luckier ones. He found a place at a Centre d’Accueil de Demandeurs d’Asile (CADA) reception centre for asylum seekers monitored by the association France Terre d’Asile in the south of France. Many are not that lucky, and wander from one service to another for months.

The number of asylum seekers seeking such service grew to 52,762 in 2010, according to the latest report from the Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides (OFPRA) – the French agency for protection of refugees and stateless people.

The Dispositif National d’Accueil (DNA, the national reception plan) provides for less than half as many places, and these are mostly for families, meaning single people are likely to live on the street.

“It is very difficult to balance supply and demand in this field,” OFPRA’s communications director told IPS. “We cannot predict the evolution of asylum seeking.”

Asylum seekers arriving in Toulon port need first to go to Nice 150 km away to secure the right to stay on in France, required before being allowed to seek asylum.

Meanwhile, most people who land have no place to sleep, no money, no way to feed their family, and no help in their struggle to deal with the traumas of their past. Only a few get financial aid.

CADA director in Toulon Virginie Morizot tells IPS financial aid under an Allocation Temporaire d’Attente (ATA) is only 10.83 euros per day. And asylum seekers struggle to fill in exhaustive and detailed forms in French as they apply for refugee status. New cost-cutting measures will mean “professionals workers are not allowed nor paid to help to fill the request.”

The government announced in July that about 400 of a total of 2,000 jobs in social departments helping refugees would be cut as of January next year.

Morizot, who is also departmental director of the association France Terre d’Asile says now charity organisations such as Secours Catholique, a member of the global Caritas network, and the Church- supported Sichem are filling in the gap to provide assistance.

Saoul failed to secure refugee status at first because the language issue and his cognitive difficulties meant he was unable to understand and answer correctly questions before an OFPRA official. He finally managed refugee status following an appeal to the Cour Nationale du Droit d’Asile (CNDA), the national court for asylum seekers. He now gets psychological support, and is proud of his children who are accomplished in school and sports.

“But the majority of the decisions made by the CNDA confirm the one of OFPRA,” the OFPRA communications director told IPS. That means a rejection of refugee status, since both underpin their decision with the same legal documents, starting with the Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees, the 60th anniversary of which was celebrated in July.

Difficulties do not disappear once an asylum seeker succeeds in becoming a refugee. A refugee can stay ten years in France with the same civil rights as French citizens – except for the right to vote. But financial aid is progressively cut, and CADA facilities withdrawn.

Morizot tells IPS that one of their staff specialises in looking for employment and housing for refugees. Some other organisations have their own specific programmes following a European objective.

Forum-Réfugiés set up in 1982 and partially public-funded, works actively to provide employment and accommodation. Under the 2002 European Equal project, Forum-Réfugiés set up the Accelair programme, under which about 300 refugees a year are housed.

Director of Forum-Réfugiés Jean-François Ploquin acknowledges these are small numbers but says the programme is confined to Lyon region. But in this region “we are currently capable of helping in integration of refugees through employment and housing at short deadlines.”

He says their programme has helped about 5,000 refugees so far. Following a government request, Forum-Réfugiés is now negotiating with other departments to set up other support programmes.

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