First Syrian refugees arrive in France under deal with Christian groups

The first 16 Syrian refugees to be resettled in France under a "humanitarian corridor" scheme organised with Christian groups arrived in Paris late Wednesday.

First Syrian refugees arrive in France under deal with Christian groups
Photo: AFP
“For the first time in seven years I feel safe,” said one of the group, a 59-year-old who gave his name as Nasser, as he stepped off the plane from Lebanon at Charles de Gaulle airport to applause from families and activists who had come to welcome them.
“In seven years I have never felt peace like today,” said Nasser, who is originally from Homs and had been a refugee in Lebanon since 2013.
He is due to resettle in the southwestern French city of Pau with his wife, their son and their daughter, who is wheelchair-bound.
A total of 500 refugees are due to be resettled across France by 2018 under a deal signed between the French state and five Christian organisations in March.
The Christian groups will finance the hosting of the refugees, with the state granting them visas and refugee status.
Isabelle Yard, a 57-year-old teacher, said she was “extremely moved” to be greeting Iraqi couple Raphi, Racha and their 15-year-old daughter Perla to take them home to her village, Combas, in southern France.
She added she was “a little worried” too, hoping that the family “will not be disappointed” as the village, home to 600 people, is rather isolated.
A group of 50 residents has mobilised to welcome the family and has been preparing for months, she said.
“Some give money, others give time. A couple have made their house available,” Yard said.
Francois Clavairoly, head of the French Protestant federation, said the hosts had pledged to feed and house the refugees but also help to integrate them “legally and culturally”.
France is the second country in Europe to institute a “humanitarian corridor” scheme of this kind, after Italy.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.