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Explained: Coming to France as a refugee

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
Explained: Coming to France as a refugee
Photo by BERNARD BARRON / AFP

Moving countries always has its challenges, especially around paperwork, but there's no doubt that if you're coming to France as a refugee things are a lot harder.

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Even without the trauma of being forced to flee your home, the French system for asylum seekers is extremely complicated. Waiting times run into many months and the financial support on offer is limited.

Here's a breakdown of how it works. 

Getting to France

If you want to claim asylum, you have to do it in France, applications made abroad will not be processed.

Every year, thousands of people arrive into France by irregular routes, often crossing the Mediterranean in small boats controlled by people smugglers and then requesting asylum once in France. Arriving this way will not prejudice your asylum claim, but it is very dangerous, not to mention expensive as people smuggling gangs charge thousands of euros per journey.

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Another way is to apply for an asylum-seeker's visa, known as a visa au titre de l’asile.

This can be issued at French Embassies and consulates around the world and does not necessarily have to be done from your home country - so if you have fled your country of origin you can apply for the visa in another country.

The visa allows you to enter France legally, but simply having a visa does not mean that your claim for asylum will be accepted, nor does it exempt you from having to go through the normal asylum application process.

If you do not have the correct documents to enter France you can request asylum at the border. People who apply this way are generally kept in a detention centre pending a decision on entering France by the Interior Ministry.

If you are already in France on a different visa type - e.g. a student visa or visitor visa - and something happens that makes it impossible for you to return to your home country, you can claim asylum.

In each case, the claims process is the same.

Claiming asylum

Applications are dealt with by the Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides, almost universally known by its acronym Ofpra.

Making the application is a three-step process.

First you register your intention to claim asylum and that gets you a meeting. At that meeting you will be given a one-month certificate stating that you intend to apply for asylum, and the form to make your actual application.

The initial step involves visiting a Structure de premier accueil des demandeurs d'asile (SPADA). Staff there fix an appointment at a Guichet unique. This appointment should be within three days, or at a maximum of 10 days. 

You can find contact details for your nearest SPADA here.

At the Guichet unique, you formally register your intention to apply for asylum, and declare yourself to your local préfecture as an asylum seeker. Staff will also consider whether France is the correct place for your application (under the Dublin rules).

If France is considered the correct place, you will be given the form to make your formal application for asylum.

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The form must be completed and sent to Ofpra within 21 days. 

If you do not have anywhere to live, you can request help with housing at this meeting (details below).

All French administrative processes involve filling in forms and providing, if possible, a dossier (collection of documents) and the asylum process is no different. There are a number of guides available to filling in the form and there are also refugee associations that can provide help. 

Try to give us much detail and supporting evidence as possible - there is an online tool that lets you know if your dossier of supporting documents is likely to be considered as 'complete'. 

Sending the form

The form is then sent by post to OFPRA, 201 Rue Carnot, 94136 Fontenay-sous-Bois Cedex, and it's a good idea to send it by registered post (lettre recommendé).

Your application is then registered. You will get an acknowledgement letter and an Ofpra number, which is important to keep hold of for all future correspondence. 

If you do not get the form finished and sent within the 21-day limit, there is a second option - you can go to your local préfecture within 9 months of your initial appointment and ask for a form to reopen your application (formulaire de demande de réouverture).

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Language

Most French administrative processes are available in French only, but asylum applications are different. At your Guichet unique interview you will be asked to declare a language, and that is the language that Ofpra will use for future correspondence and interviews.

What next?

The next stage is being invited for interview. All interviews take place at Ofpra headquarters just outside Paris, so if you're not in the Paris region you will need to travel. 

The date for your interview will be sent out by mail and if you have provided an email address or mobile number, you will also get a SMS and email confirming the time 48 hours before your appointment.

Ofpra says that it is possible to register a change of contact details such as a new address or new phone number while your application is being dealt with.

Once you have had the interview, you will then receive a second registered letter informing you whether your application has been successful.

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Waiting times

So how long is all this likely to take? 

It's not a quick process. The Ofpra target is for applications to be decided within 6 months, although this can be extended to 15 months in certain circumstances. Ofpra may also request further information for your application. If this is the case you have 8 days to provide the requested documents.

There is an accelerated process, but in general you don't want to be on that - it's used in cases where for example someone has refused to be fingerprinted, has submitted multiple applications under different names or has been found to have provided false information. In short, those claims are less likely to succeed.

If your application is refused, you have the right to appeal, but this too is a lengthy process. There are people who have been in France for years while their claims make their way through the application and appeals process.

Rights while waiting

Once you have formally stated that you intend to apply for asylum, you get the status of a Demandeur d'asile (asylum seeker) and that brings with it certain rights, but also restrictions.

Accommodation - If you have no place to stay, you can be granted accommodation, although this comes with the caveat that it's not always available, you may be asked to pay depending on your financial situation. You also have to leave quickly once your application is decided. The accommodation is often pretty grim.

Financial help - If you are over the age of 18 and not working, you are entitled to the Allocation pour demandeur d'asile (ADA). This is a daily rate of €6.80 for a single person, plus an extra €14.20 for accommodation if you have not been provided with free accommodation.

Find the rates for families here.

Work - for the first 6 months after your application is submitted you cannot work. If, after 6 months, Ofpra is still dealing with your application, you can apply for the right to work under certain circumstances. If you entered France under a visa type that did allow you to work, and then requested asylum, you can make a request to be allowed to continue working.

Healthcare - for your first three months in France you can only access free emergency healthcare. After that you can access all types of healthcare through the Puma system.

Under 18s can access all types of healthcare from the beginning of their stay in France and do not need to wait three months.

Schooling - children can access free schooling from the ages of three to 16.

If your request for asylum is granted you have the right to stay in France, to work and to be joined by family members.

Likely to be granted? 

So once you have been through this gruelling process, how likely is France to grant your request for asylum?

Obviously this mostly depends on the strength of your claim and how much evidence you are able to provide, but overall around 25 percent of asylum applications in France are granted - although this figure includes people who are applying for a second time and people who have already applied in another EU country.

Note - the article covers the broad outline of the process for gaining asylum in France, but is not intended as a substitute for legal advice. This covers the process for most types of claim for adults - the system is different for unaccompanied minors.

The charity Cimade operates a network of local offices in France that offer advice and support to people going throught he asylum process - full details here.

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