France’s foreign doctors suffer insecurity as understaffed hospitals struggle to function

The situation for several thousand foreign doctors working in French hospitals has become more complicated since the end of the exemption scheme put into place during the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly 1,900 of these practitioners have now lost their right to practise, a great loss for French hospitals already struggling with shortages of medical staff. FRANCE 24 spoke to some of them.

Karima*’s last visit to the prefecture was a complete nightmare, as her residence permit was not renewed. “All I have is a receipt”, she says. This is despite the fact that she has been working as a paediatric orthopaedic surgeon – including in the emergency department, where she is on call at least four nights a month – for the past two years in a hospital in the Parisian suburbs. “My colleagues in general surgery asked me to come help out,” says the surgeon, who is originally from a country in North Africa*. “I’m not going to let them down,” she says, although she doesn’t know how much longer she will be able to practise.

Even though the hospital has agreed to let her work, Karima is concerned that her contract, which is renewed every six months, will be allowed to expire. She is one of some 4,000 medical practitioners with qualifications from outside the European Union known as “Padhue” (for the acronym of praticiens diplômés en dehors de l’Union européenne) who have been working in French hospitals for years in precarious positions such as “acting intern”.

“The work I do is real work, the work of a practitioner, even though I’m on an intern contract for which I get paid 1,400 euros net and which has to be renewed every six months. The prefecture refused to renew my residence permit because of these breaches of contract,” says the doctor, who is constantly going back and forth with the authorities to try and stabilise her situation. “This time, the prefecture is asking me for a work permit provided by the regional health agency, which no longer wants to provide it, as the law has changed.” 

On December 31, 2023, the exemption scheme that allowed establishments to employ Padhue staff under a variety of precarious arrangements expired, making it impossible for them to continue working. As of January 1, these doctors must sit highly selective and competitive examinations known as “knowledge verification tests” (épreuves de vérification des connaissances, or EVC) before they can be reinstated. Posts under the scheme are hard to come by, with 2,700 available for over 8,000 applicants in 2023, some of whom try their luck from abroad. As a result, the majority of the Padhue doctors found themselves out of the running this year.

After an outcry from French unions, the government finally promised to “regularise a number of foreign doctors” and renewed their temporary work permits another year so that they can sit the 2024 EVC.

‘I don’t understand why I’m not being judged on my experience here’

However, Karima’s problems are far from over, as she tried to sit the EVC in paediatric orthopaedic surgery in 2023 but her application was rejected. “They tell me that I don’t have the right diploma, that I need one in paediatric orthopaedics, but my country doesn’t offer this type of diploma! I don’t understand why I’m not being judged on my experience here. I operate on my own, I consult, I have my own patients,” she says. 

When she arrived in France in 2020, she did not have long-term plans to live on this side of the Mediterranean. “I had been sent to France for further training in orthopaedic surgery because I had noticed shortcomings in the department where I was working in North Africa,” she says. But after almost two years as an associate trainee at a university hospital in Nice, Karima found herself stuck in France because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the closure of her country’s borders. She also lost her job in North Africa. 

While in Nice, she worked on the front lines during the Covid-19 pandemic alongside French medical staff, lending a hand in intensive care. “We saved lives. And we’ll continue to do so. It’s what we do. Sometimes in the emergency department, I find myself in a situation where I have to react in a split second, do the right thing and make the right decision to save someone.”

‘I regularly pack my bags’

Sometimes Karima thinks about returning to North Africa. “I ask myself the question if I can go on in this situation. But I have a job that I love, especially the children. I’m attached to my patients. When I see in their eyes that they’re satisfied, I feel useful.” However, she is thinking more and more about leaving, as she wants a life where she can plan beyond a day-to-day basis. “I regularly find myself packing my bags. I hesitate to order new furniture.” Those close to her have suggested that she apply for a job in Germany “Some of my colleagues have gone there. They were accepted on the basis of their applications and took German language courses,” she says.

Against the backdrop of its overwhelmed healthcare system, France is in desperate need of additional medical staff, but risks losing thousands of these doctors to other European countries.  

Watch moreA country short of doctors: Exploring France’s ‘medical deserts’

 


Dr Aristide Yayi, originally from Burkina Faso, came to demonstrate in front of the health ministry in Paris, France to defend the rights of foreign doctors working in France on February 15, 2024. © Bahar Makooi, FRANCE 24

Dr Aristide Yayi is originally from Burkina Faso and qualified in forensic medicine in Dakar, Senegal. He has been working for three years as a general practitioner at the only residential care home for senior citizens (“Ehpads”, in France) in Commercy, a small town in the northeastern Meuse department. France’s elder care sector is in desperate need of doctors. “My contract runs until July 2024. After that, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Yayi. He wants to develop a pain management service for the Ehpad residents, but this project may never see the light of day if his situation does not become more stable. “I’ve been on one training course after another, with six-month contracts as an ‘acting intern’. It’s always uncertain and precarious. I feel like I’m being treated like a junior doctor,” he says.

Hospital services under threat without foreign doctors

Several hospital department heads, particularly in the Paris region, have warned that they will be “forced to close” if no more foreign doctors are hired. At his January 16 press conference, President Emmanuel Macron admitted that France needed these practitioners, saying he wanted to “regularise a number of foreign doctors, who help to hold our system together”. This promise was reiterated by newly-appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal in his general policy speech at the end of January. 

French unions are now demanding that this rhetoric be followed by action. At a meeting with the health ministry on February 15, they welcomed the previous day’s publication of the decree renewing temporary work permits for foreign doctors who undertake to sit the 2024 EVC. However, Olivier Varnet, general secretary of the National Union of Hospital Doctors FO, criticised the decree, saying it was “a first step” that “merely postpones the problem for a year”.

Meanwhile, foreign doctors are suffering, as almost 1,900 of them are unable to work at the moment. “My old department is desperately looking for someone to replace me. They’re really struggling. I was in charge of two units with 20 patients each. It’s absurd,” says Mostapha, who worked in a follow-up care and rehabilitation unit in Normandy. His contract as an “associate practitioner” was suspended on January 1, as he was not permitted to sit the knowledge verification tests. “The hospital wanted to keep me, but the regional health authority didn’t authorise it,” he says.

‘Some candidates failed, even with top marks’

A graduate of the Faculty of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Algiers, he followed his wife, a French national, to France three years ago. “I don’t have any problems with my papers – I have a 10-year residence permit,” he says.

Mostapha joined his fellow doctors and a French union delegation received on February 16, 2024 by the Ministry of Health in Paris, France.
Mostapha joined his fellow doctors and a French union delegation in a meeting at the French health ministry on February 16, 2024. © Bahar Makooi, FRANCE 24

Mostapha hopes that his case will be examined more closely and that the new decree will enable him to return to work. However, he doesn’t really believe that taking the exam will help him get his career back on track: “I’m planning to take it again because for the moment there’s no other solution, although the chances of passing it are getting smaller and smaller because of the number of posts. It’s worse than selective.”

Many unions believe that the exam is more reflective of a quota system than an actual “verification of knowledge”. “Some candidates failed with an average of more than 15 [out of 20, a highly competitive result],” says Laurent Laporte, general secretary of the CGT’s Federal Union of Doctors, Engineers, Managers and Technicians. The unions say the test is “too academic”, “random”, “opaque” and “discriminatory for doctors working more than 60 hours a week”. The health ministry promised on February 15 to “reformulate the EVC” by making it more practical. 

*This person wishes to remain anonymous

This article has been translated from the original in French

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House speaker rejects Ukraine aid package as senators grind through votes

House Speaker Mike Johnson late Monday sharply criticised a $95.3 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other countries, casting serious doubts about the future of the package just as Senate leaders were slowly muscling it ahead in hopes of sending a message that the US remains committed to its allies.

 

The Republican speaker said the package lacked border security provisions, calling it “silent on the most pressing issue facing our country.” It was the latest — and potentially most consequential — sign of opposition to the Ukraine aid from conservatives who have for months demanded that border security policy be included in the package, only to last week reject a bipartisan proposal intended to curb the number of illegal crossings at the US-Mexico border

“Now, in the absence of having received any single border policy change from the Senate, the House will have to continue to work its own will on these important matters,” Johnson said. “America deserves better than the Senate’s status quo.”

A determined group of Republican senators was also trying Monday with a marathon set of speeches to slow the Senate from passing the package. The mounting opposition was just the latest example of how the Republican Party’s stance on foreign affairs is being transformed under the influence of Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee.

Even if the package passes the Senate, as is expected, it faces an uncertain future in the House, where Republicans are more firmly aligned with Trump and deeply skeptical of continuing to aid Ukraine in its war against Russia.

As Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and 17 other GOP senators have provided the votes to ensure the foreign aid package stays on track to clearing the Senate, Johnson has shown no sign he will put the package up for a vote.

Support for sending military aid to Ukraine has waned among Republicans, but lawmakers have cast the aid as a direct investment in American interests to ensure global stability. The package would allot roughly $60 billion to Ukraine, and about a third of that would be spent replenishing the US military with the weapons and equipment that are sent to Kyiv.

“These are the enormously high stakes of the supplemental package: our security, our values, our democracy,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer as he opened the chamber. “It is a down payment for the survival of Western democracy and the survival of American values.”

Schumer worked closely with McConnell for months searching for a way to win favor in the House for tens of billions of dollars in aid for Ukraine. But after the carefully negotiated Senate compromise that included border policy collapsed last week, Republicans have been deeply divided on the legislation.

Sen. JD Vance, an Ohio Republican, argued that the US should step back from the conflict and help broker an end to the conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He questioned the wisdom of continuing to fuel Ukraine’s defense when Putin appears committed to continuing the conflict for years.

“I think it deals with the reality that we’re living in, which is they’re a more powerful country, and it’s their region of the world,” he said.

Vance, along with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and other opponents, spent several hours on the floor railing against the aid and complaining about Senate process. They dug in to delay a final vote.

“Wish us stamina. We fight for you. We stand with America,” Paul posted on social media as he and other senators prepared to occupy the floor as long as they could.

Paul defended his delays, saying “the American people need to know there was opposition to this.”

But bowing to Russia is a prospect some Republicans warned would be a dangerous move that puts Americans at risk. In an unusually raw back-and-forth, GOP senators who support the aid challenged some of the opponents directly on the floor.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis angrily rebutted some of their arguments, noting that the money would only help Ukraine for less than a year and that much of it would go to replenishing US military stocks.

“Why am I so focused on this vote?” Tillis said. “Because I don’t want to be on the pages of history that we will regret if we walk away. You will see the alliance that is supporting Ukraine crumble. You will ultimately see China become emboldened. And I am not going to be on that page of history.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., became emotional as he talked about the drudgery of the Senate and spending time away from his family to get little done. “But every so often there are issues that come before us that seem to be the ones that explain why we are here,” he said, his voice cracking.

Moran conceded that the cost of the package was heavy for him, but pointed out that if Putin were to attack a NATO member in Europe, the US would be bound by treaty to become directly involved in the conflict.

Trump, speaking at a rally Saturday, said that he had once told a NATO ally he would encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to members that are “delinquent” in their financial and military commitments to the alliance. The former president has led his party away from the foreign policy doctrines of aggressive American involvement overseas and toward an “America First” isolationism.

Evoking the slogan, Moran said, “I believe in America first, but unfortunately America first means we have to engage in the world.”

Senate supporters of the package have been heartened by the fact that many House Republicans still adamantly want to fund Ukraine’s defense.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat, traveled to Kyiv last week with a bipartisan group that included Reps. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, as well as French Hill, R-Ark., Jason Crow, D-Colo. and Zach Nunn, R-Iowa.

Spanberger said the trip underscored to her how Ukraine is still in a fight for its very existence. As the group traveled through Kyiv in armored vehicles, they witnessed signs of an active war, from sandbagged shelters to burned-out cars and memorials to those killed. During a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the US lawmakers tried to offer assurances the American people still stood with his country.

“He was clear that our continued support is critical to their ability to win the war,” Spanberger said. “It’s critical to their own freedom. And importantly, it’s critical to US national security interests.”

The bipartisan group discussed how rarely used procedures could be used to advance the legislation through the House, even without the speaker’s support. But Spanberger called it a “tragedy” that the legislation could still stall despite a majority of lawmakers standing ready to support it.

“The fact that the only thing standing in the way is one person who does or doesn’t choose to bring it to the floor,” she said. “The procedure standing in the way of defeating Russia — that’s the part that for me is just untenable.”

(AP)

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Riots, protests and climate uprisings: 2023 was a tumultuous year in France

France encountered severe turbulence over the past 12 months, roiled by a long and bitter battle over pension reform as well as crippling droughts, sizzling heatwaves and nationwide rioting. FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the top stories from a year of turmoil.

Even by French standards, 2023 was a year of exceptional social unrest, marked by France’s largest protest movement this century and the worst bout of rioting in almost two decades. From start to end, President Emmanuel Macron’s minority government struggled to pass legislation in a fractious and bitterly divided parliament, often opting to bypass it altogether. Severe droughts and unseasonal heatwaves pushed the life-threatening challenges of climate change to the fore, while a nationwide bedbug frenzy brought unwanted attention from abroad as the country hosted the Rugby World Cup and raced to prepare for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

  • Pension battle ends in Pyrrhic win for Macron

A montage of President Emmanuel Macron as the “Sun King” Louis XIV at a protest against pension reform in Paris on March 23, 2023. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Macron kicked off the year with a push to overhaul France’s pension system, setting the stage for a showdown with a united front of unions. The French president staked his reformist credentials on passage of the flagship reform, which raised the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 – a step his government said was necessary to balance the books amid shifting demographics. Unions countered that the reform would disproportionately affect low-skilled workers and women, successfully framing the pension debate as part of a wider fight for social justice.

The months-long tussle saw opponents of the reform stage multiple rounds of strikes and protests, drawing huge crowds in cities, towns and even villages across France. Refinery shutdowns and transport strikes caused travel chaos while a walkout by rubbish collectors kicked up a “great stink” in the streets of Paris – though unions ultimately failed in their bid to “paralyse” the country. Throughout the standoff, polls consistently showed that a large majority of the French opposed the reform, piling the pressure on a government already outnumbered in parliament.

Violence flared in late March when Macron ordered his government to ram the reform through parliament without a vote, using special executive powers. The move sparked several nights of unrest and turned the festering social dispute into a crisis of French democracy. Police crackdowns and controversial rulings by France’s constitutional court helped snuff out the movement, handing Macron a pyrrhic victory – though in the weeks that followed he could scarcely take a step outside the Élysée Palace without being greeted by protesters banging pots and pans.

  • Teen’s death sets off nationwide riots

Fireworks target French riot police during protests in Nanterre, west of Paris, on June 28, 2023.
Fireworks target French riot police during protests in Nanterre, west of Paris, on June 28, 2023. © Zakaria Abdelkafiz, AFP

Running battles between riot police and pension protesters revived a long-standing debate on police brutality in France – with human rights monitors both at home and abroad raising the alarm over officers’ “excessive use of force”. The scrutiny only increased in late June when towns and cities across the country erupted in rage at the killing of Nahel M., a 17-year-old of North African origin who was shot dead by police during a routine traffic stop in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.

Social media footage of the incident, which contradicted police claims that Nahel had posed a threat to officers, kicked off several nights of rioting in France’s deprived and ethnically diverse suburbs, known as banlieues, where non-white youths have long complained of being singled out by police. Rioters focused their attacks on symbols of the state, including police stations, schools and town halls. The Interior Ministry said that more than 1,000 buildings and 5,000 vehicles were torched. 

In a rare criticism of the police, Macron described the fatal shooting as “inexplicable” and “unforgivable”, while the UN’s human rights office urged France to “seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement”. However, the initial expressions of outrage soon gave way to hardline law-and-order rhetoric amid consecutive nights of rioting. And as police unions openly spoke of battling “vermin” and “savage hordes”, analysts feared the real lessons of Nahel’s killing – like other past tragedies – would not be learned.

A protester holds up a Palestinian flag at an unauthorised rally in solidarity with Gaza held in central Paris on October 12, 2023.
A protester holds up a Palestinian flag at an unauthorised rally in solidarity with Gaza held in central Paris on October 12, 2023. © AFP

When the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas launched a murderous attack on southern Israel on October 7, triggering a ferocious and devastating Israeli response, French authorities openly voiced concern that the conflict might stoke further unrest in France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim populations. 

A spike in anti-Semitic acts sowed anguish among French Jews and politicians of all stripes took part in a Paris march to denounce anti-Semitism, though the presence of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally led some opponents to shun the rally. Meanwhile, rights groups voiced dismay as the government banned pro-Palestinian protests on the grounds that they might “disturb public order”, until judges ruled that a blanket ban was unlawful. The war also sparked a rare dispute at an annual march against gender-based violence in Paris, signaling tensions between French feminists over their response to sexual crimes attributed to Hamas. 

Fears that the plight of Gaza would inspire Islamist militants to carry out attacks on French soil appeared to materialise on October 13 when a high-school teacher in northern Arras was stabbed to death by a radicalised former pupil who originated from Russia’s Ingushetia – reigniting the trauma of Samuel Paty’s beheading in 2020. In the days following the Arras stabbing, government ministers suggested the war in Gaza may have “precipitated” events, though investigators were yet to establish a formal link with the assailant, who had declared allegiance to the Islamic State group prior to the attack.

  • Far right hails hardline immigration law

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin spent much of the year trying to build support in parliament for a tough new immigration law.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin attends a session of questions to the government at The National Assembly in Paris on December 12, 2023. © Bertrand Guay, AFP

For Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the Arras knife attack proved the need for new legislation making it easier to expel foreign nationals suspected of radicalisation. The hawkish minister had spent much of the year trying to build parliamentary support for a tough new “immigration law”, which rights groups condemned as repressive. His efforts appeared to have collapsed when opposition lawmakers banded together to shoot down the bill before it was even debated in the National Assembly. 

In response, the government submitted an even tougher law to win over right-wing lawmakers, introducing measures that discriminate between citizens and immigrants in terms of eligibility to benefits. The law was harsh enough for Le Pen to claim it as an “ideological victory” for her National Rally and its passage with support from the far right sparked a crisis within Macron’s ruling party, leading his health minister to resign in protest. In a rare move, a third of French regions vowed not to comply with some of its toughest measures. 

  • Droughts, heatwaves and climate uprisings

Burnt sunflowers pictured in a field near the village of Puy Saint Martin, in southeastern France, on August 22, 2023.
Burnt sunflowers pictured in a field near the village of Puy Saint Martin, in southeastern France, on August 22, 2023. © Jeff Pachoud, AFP

The ubiquitous Darmanin made headlines throughout the year as he ordered the disbanding of a range of groups he deemed extremist. They included the climate movement Les Soulèvements de la Terre (“Earth’s uprisings”), whose attempt to prevent the construction of controversial water reservoirs resulted in a pitched battle with police that left hundreds injured and two people in a coma. The interior minister accused the group of inciting “ecoterrorism”, but his attempt to ban it was quashed by France’s top administrative court.

The clashes at Sainte-Soline were indicative of mounting tensions between corporate farming and environmental activists as the country grappled with recurrent and increasingly unseasonal heatwaves, which put further stress on fragile ecosystems already weakened by crippling droughts. The climate emergency cast a spotlight on livestock farming and eating habits, with meat consumption the biggest contributor to food-related greenhouse gas emissions. 

Adapting the way farmers use water resources was one of 50 measures included in a water-saving plan unveiled in March, following an exceptionally dry winter. Extraordinary measures were required to help the Indian ocean island of Mayotte, where the worst drought in decades forced the government to send a military cargo ship stacked with drinking water. And in Paris, where scientists warned that temperatures could reach 50C by 2050, volunteers used a pioneering tree-planting method to create pocket forests offering shelter from the heat. 

  • Paris Olympics feel the heat

An illustration showing the concept for the Paris Olympics opening ceremony, to be staged on the River Seine.
An illustration showing the concept for the Paris Olympics opening ceremony, to be staged on the River Seine. © Florian Hulleu, AFP

As the French capital grappled with the challenges of climate change, organisers of next year’s Summer Olympics struggled to back up their pledge to make the Paris 2024 Games the “greenest” yet. In May, they backtracked on a promise to eliminate more greenhouse gas emissions than those generated by the event, while insisting Paris 2024 would still halve the carbon footprint of previous games. But delays to transport upgrades threatened to jeopardise emissions targets, while climate activists described carbon-offsetting plans as little more than “greenwashing”.

Ambitious plans to host the opening ceremony along the River Seine – rather than inside a stadium – also came under scrutiny as officials released an 11-page security protocol aimed at shielding the event from the threats of terrorism, drone attacks and other risks. The protocol triggered a rare protest by the French capital’s famed bouquinistes, whose iconic riverside book kiosks will be dismantled for the occasion. The Seine churned up more headaches for organisers when pollution levels repeatedly forced the cancellation of trials for swimming events set to be held in the river.

  • Hosts fall short at Rugby World Cup

France's captain Antoine Dupont (left) and lock Cameron Woki react after the hosts' quarter-final defeat at the Rugby World Cup.
France’s captain Antoine Dupont (left) and lock Cameron Woki react after the hosts’ quarter-final defeat at the Rugby World Cup. © Franck Fife, AFP

Doubts about France’s ability to host large sporting events had simmered since the Champions League final hosted at the Stade de France in May 2022, when French police notoriously doused Liverpool fans with tear gas and pepper spray amid a chaotic build-up marred by train strikes and issues of fake ticketing. This year’s Rugby World Cup, hosted at the same venue and in eight other French cities, was a chance for France to make amends and prove its readiness – a challenge organisers largely pulled off.

The seven-week rugby extravaganza kicked off with a memorable French win over old rivals New Zealand, which bolstered the home nation’s hopes of winning a maiden World Cup title. Those hopes took a blow when a fractured cheekbone stripped the hosts of their talismanic skipper Antoine Dupond. The fly-half returned with a face mask for the crunch quarter-final against title holders South Africa but could not prevent an agonising one-point defeat for Les Bleus. After edging England by the same margin in the semis, the Springboks went on to grab the narrowest of wins over the All Blacks in the final, clinching a record fourth World Cup title. 

  • Bedbugs, tiger mosquitoes and trotinettes

Self-service e-scooters were banished from the streets of Paris after a public consultation marked by record-low turnout.
Self-service e-scooters were banished from the streets of Paris after a public consultation marked by record-low turnout. © Thomas Coex, AFP

Midway through the tournament, concern over an increase in the number of bedbugs rapidly spiralled into national hysteria, with the bloodsucking pests making headlines both in France and abroad. Cinemas, trains and Paris metros were said to be crawling with the tiny insects and one lawmaker brandished a vial of bugs in the National Assembly, urging the government to address the “explosive situation”. But officials insisted there was no scientific evidence to suggest any explosion in bedbugs, and that images posted on social media did not necessarily mean growing numbers.

Health authorities appeared more concerned about the spread of the Asian tiger mosquito as evidence emerged that the black-and-white striped insect had settled in 71 of the country’s 96 mainland départements (administrative units). With climate change creating perfect conditions for its proliferation, experts warned that the invasive species threatened to spread diseases like zika, dengue and chikungunya.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tackled a very different type of nuisance when she called a referendum on banning self-service e-scooters, citing irresponsible use and a rising accident toll. The April vote was billed as a showdown between trottinettes-hating boomers and Gen Z, the service’s main users. But only the former showed up for the low-turnout ballot, and the e-scooters were duly banished from the streets of Paris.

  • Ukrainian art, Gainsbourg and a fiery Palme d’Or

This Byzantine icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, dating from 6th-7th centuries, went on show at the Louvre after it was evacuated from Ukraine.
This Byzantine icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, dating from 6th-7th centuries, went on show at the Louvre after it was evacuated from Ukraine. © Khanenko Museum

As always, the French capital’s museums and galleries served up an abundance of art shows, dedicated to the likes of Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall and Berthe Morisot. Paris exhibits showcased Ukrainian art work evacuated following Russia’s invasion last year, taking the fight for the country’s heritage to the world-famous Louvre. Photographer Robert Doisneau’s little-known work forging documents during the Nazi occupation was the subject of a groundbreaking show near Paris, and the iconic Left Bank home of singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg finally opened to the public – its ashtrays still brimming with Gitanes cigarette butts.

Down on the Riviera, French director Justine Triet won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or for her thrilling courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall” – becoming only the third female director to win cinema’s most prestigious award. But it was a bittersweet success for Macron and his ministers, whose cultural policies and conduct during France’s pension battle she proceeded to rubbish in a fiery acceptance speech broadcast live on national television.

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France’s undocumented migrants face uncertain future under new immigration law

Despite facing serious labour shortages, the French government passed a more restrictive immigration bill this week after watering down measures that would have streamlined the legalisation of foreign workers. But some of the law’s new provisions may still offer a glimmer of hope for the country’s hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants. 

Until it became unstuck, the sticking point – as far as France’s right wing was concerned – for the Macron government’s sweeping immigration bill was how to deal with the country’s undocumented migrants.

In presenting the bill’s initial text a year ago, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt included provisions making it easier to legalise undocumented migrants working in sectors with labour shortages. But representatives from Marine Le Pen‘s far-right National Rally party repeatedly stated they would not endorse legislation granting undocumented workers legal status. 

After the language of the bill was significantly weakened in a joint committee, Le Pen saw an opening for a strategic victory and changed course; it passed the National Assembly (lower house) on Tuesday with Le Pen’s endorsement.

While it does not go as far as the original text, the new law gives undocumented workers in high-demand occupations a path to obtaining residency permits. Speaking a day after the law was passed, Darmanin said he expects the number of legalisations (régularisations) to double, with “ten thousand additional foreign workers each year“.

At the same time, the law will make it more difficult – and more risky – for undocumented workers in France: a law abolished by former president François Hollande that allowed police to fine foreigners up to €3,750 if they are found to be in the country unlawfully has been reintroduced. The bill also steps up sanctions against companies employing illegal workers.

Sans papiers

The number of undocumented workers, or what the French call the “sans papiers” (without papers), is impossible to calculate. Darmanin himself estimates the number to be between 600,000 and 900,000.

Amadou* moved to France from Mali on a work visa in 2001 (overstaying a legal visa is the most common path to becoming an undocumented migrant in Europe).

Finding work has never been a problem. He has primarily worked in the hospitality sector and in retirement homes – he currently works at a restaurant in Paris’s 7th arrondissement (district). “I’ve been working in France for 19 years without a holiday, without any sick days or absences,” he says.

Amadou first applied for working papers – to no avail – in 2012. The second time he applied, in 2018, he was denied because he didn’t have children or a partner to support. Since then, despite help from his employer, he has been unable to get another meeting.

Amadou belongs to an association that supports undocumented migrants in Montreuil, a suburb just east of Paris. He often participates in protests but realises he and people like him are largely powerless. “I’d like to get my papers but, considering it’s [the politicians] who decide, we are not their priority,” he says.

France’s right-wing Les Republicains party and the far-right National Rally are reluctant to endorse a path towards legalisation because they believe migrants choose France for its advantageous social system. Therefore, the logic goes, making life difficult for migrants will prevent more migrants from coming – an idea that has no grounding in research.

Read moreMacron accused of doing far-right’s bidding with stricter immigration law

By contrast, studies have found that legalising migrants has positive macroeconomic and fiscal outcomes in developed countries.

Citing research from the Institute of Labour Economics, French economist Pierre Cahuc argued for the significant advantages that legalisation can have on a country’s economy in the French financial daily Les Echos.

“It is a crucial factor to take into account in the context of low growth and an ageing population,” Cahuc said. “From a purely fiscal standpoint, legalisation could also have a positive impact since declared work generates income for the state coffers.”

Violaine Carrère, a lawyer at Gisti, an immigrant information and support group, agrees. “When you are on a payroll, you pay into social security. And with a real salary, you can spend more.” 

Not only does it benefit the economy, Carrère says, becoming legal enables migrants “to integrate fully and lead a dignified life”.

“Staying stuck, working all the time – it’s not a life that many people would want to live,” says Amadou.

“Everyone wants to be happy, have a good life, a roof and a family. If you’re a sans papier it’s all out of reach.”

Labour shortages

Under French President Emmanuel Macron, unemployment has fallen to 7.4% of the workforce, the lowest level in more than a decade. He has pledged to continue this mission, pushing for full employment (which the country’s labour organisation considers to be 5%).

At the same time, eight out of 10 professions in France saw labour shortages in 2022, according to the Directorate for Research, Studies and Statistics (Direction de l’Animation de la recherche, des Études et des Statistiques). This increased from seven out of 10 in 2021 due to France’s ageing population and a wave of resignations.

Targeting low domestic unemployment rates while seeking a concurrent increase in migrant labour might seem contradictory. But it is simply not possible to make up for France’s worker shortfalls with a supply of domestic labour that is mostly young – some 17% of French youth are unemployed, significantly higher than the EU average. 

Research is focusing on three central reasons for this, says migration policy analyst Anna Piccinni. The first and second are skill disparities and remuneration: much of the increasingly qualified youth are not motivated by low-skilled jobs, especially if the salary level is not what they expect.

Piccinni’s third reason is that labour shortages are often localised and migrants offer a more mobile labour force – filling the gaps that non-migrant workers might be unable or unwilling to fill. “Often, shortages of low-skilled labour are not in urban areas, where the youth move for their studies and then stick around for jobs,” she says. “Migrants have the potential to fill these gaps.”

Indeed, she points out that many municipalities across Europe are now creating incentives to retain migrant populations – such as Altena, a small town in Germany known for its successful integration scheme.

This point has not been lost on France’s business community. Speaking to Radio Classique in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote, Patrick Martin, who heads the French entrepreneurs’ union, said relying on a foreign labour force is necessary for the country.

“We are already experiencing enormous recruitment pressure,” Martin said. “We have to call a spade a spade and make a choice” to allow a larger immigrant workforce.

For Piccinni, this cannot be achieved without fewer bureaucratic hurdles for issuing work permits to migrants who have already demonstrated a commitment to participating in the economy. “This has to be part of the solution,” she says.

Even the most anti-immigration governments in Europe are doing this, she points out. Georgia Meloni’s government in Italy signed a decree in March allowing 82,000 non-EU migrant workers to work in the country because of seasonal labour shortages.

“Beyond the perception of migration as a threat to social cohesion and security, some governments are aware and willing to recognise the role it has in [fulfilling] employers’ needs,” Piccinni says.

* Not his real name

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Macron accused of doing far-right’s bidding with passage of stricter immigration law

French President Emmanuel Macron is under renewed fire after urging his minority government to vote for a strengthened immigration bill that was endorsed by the far right. The late Tuesday vote, which divided Macron’s coalition MPs and prompted his health minister to resign a day later, was heralded by far-right leader Marine Le Pen as an “ideological victory” upon its passage. 

In a speech following his April 2022 re-election, Emmanuel Macron was well aware he owed his victory to left-leaning voters who considered him the lesser of two evils as he faced off a challenge from Marine Le Pen. “I know that many of our compatriots voted for me not to support the ideas I represent but to block those of the far right,” he acknowledged.

Less than two years later, Macron is facing criticism that he betrayed those same constituents by aligning with the far right after his minority government helped pass an immigration law that was heavily influenced by the right-wing Les Républicains party and supported by the far-right National Rally.

Soon after it was passed, the law was heralded by far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen who proclaimed an “ideological victory”.

Macron and members of his government rejected that assessment in a round of interviews on Wednesday.  

Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne told France Inter she felt a “sense of duty fulfilled” after the adoption of the immigration law. Faced with strong criticism from the left, NGOs and even within her own government, Borne insisted that the law “respects our values”.

‘Préférence Nationale’

The immigration law includes several measures inspired by the National Rally’s policy platform. For example, access to certain social benefits will be conditional on a longer period of legal residence in France.

What’s more, sanctions against companies employing undocumented workers will be stepped up.

Measures like these and others concern critics who say the Macron government has accepted policies affiliated with an ideology of “préférence nationale” – policies that legitimise discrimination against foreign nationals in favour of French citizens concerning access to employment, housing and social protections.

“This law does not encompass the entirety or even the majority of Marine Le Pen’s presidential programme, but some of her policies – especially regarding national preference – certainly made the cut even if the law does not go as far as the National Rally wants,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist on the far right and the director of the Observatoire des Radicalités Politiques.

“It’s an exaggeration to talk about an extreme-right text – I would call it instead a ‘hard-right’ text – but we are still opening the door to national preference. We are not fully there, but the door is ajar,” says Caroline Janvier, an MP from Macron’s Renaissance party who voted against the immigration law on Tuesday. 

‘Kiss of death’

It is precisely the addition of national preference policies that tipped the vote on Tuesday night.

Until the mid-afternoon, representatives from the National Rally repeatedly stated they would not endorse the bill, deeming it impossible to approve a text that grants undocumented workers legal status. But seeing the possibility of a strategic victory on the issue of national preference, Le Pen reversed course.

“One can rejoice in an ideological victory … national preference is now inscribed in law, meaning the French will have an advantage over foreigners in accessing certain social benefits,” Le Pen said on Tuesday.

Janvier described Le Pen’s endorsement as the “kiss of death” – a “political move” to make Macron’s government look complicit with the far right in the eyes of left-leaning constituents.

National Rally members were not the only ones pleased by Tuesday’s vote. “There was a kind of jubilation among MPs from Les Républicains over having chipped away at a taboo: that of equality between French and foreigners,” said Camus. “For them, this means that the cultural hegemony of the left has begun to crumble. Beyond the immigration issue, a moral taboo has been broken.”

But Camus said the party’s hopes of luring away far-right supporters are likely in vain. “Les Républicains continue to pursue a strategy of undermining the National Rally by hijacking their policy platform. The only problem is that this strategy doesn’t work. The National Rally continues to rise in the polls,” he said.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father and the founder of National Rally predecessor the National Front, may have said it best: “Voters always prefer the original to the copy.” 

Victory by ‘background noise’

Macron could have prevented this shift by choosing, in the face of Les Républicains demands, to withdraw the bill and start from scratch. But he deemed it preferable to go through with the vote, even if it meant dividing his coalition.

In total, 27 MPs in the government’s coalition voted against the bill that passed while 32 abstained. Health Minister Aurélien Rousseau resigned from his role in protest the following day.

Borne insisted on France Inter on Wednesday that “there is no crisis in the coalition” while government spokesperson Olivier Véran said that same day there was “no ministerial rebellion”.

Macron defended his decision in an interview with the “C à Vous” TV programme on Wednesday evening. “It is a shield that we needed,” he said, adding that the law “will allow us to fight against what nourishes the National Rally party” – namely immigration fears.

Read moreFiercely contested immigration law is a ‘shield that we needed’, Macron says

Whatever the case, the lines are no longer the same as 20 years ago, Camus said. “With this law, we have accepted the far-right vision of immigration as a danger.”

He said the National Rally’s success is due to persistent “background noise”: “This law would not have been approved without half a century of emphasis on national preference and the idea that immigration is a burden, that we pay a price for it or that it is a factor in criminality.”

To offset the right’s most extreme measures, the Macron government appears to be adopting a novel strategy: to accept Les Républicains’ demands, knowing full well that some of them will be invalidated by the Constitutional Council, the country’s highest constitutional court.

The president submitted the immigration bill to the high court on Wednesday to “decide on its conformity in whole or in part with the Constitution”, Véran announced. Borne has also suggested that some of the bill’s measures are unconstitutional and that the text would likely “evolve”.

But it’s a risky bet, according to Camus. “French people will have a hard time understanding that the law has been emptied of its substance,” he warned.

“This will inevitably benefit the National Rally and the idea, which is already beginning to take hold, that a ‘government of judges’ works against the interests of the country.”

This article was translated from the original in French.



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‘Contradictions of Macronism’: French government fights to save face after immigration bill debacle

President Emmanuel Macron’s government vowed on Tuesday to press ahead with a controversial immigration bill, a day after its flagship reform was rejected by lawmakers in a humiliating setback. The political crisis has heaped further pressure on a government that has struggled to pass reforms without a parliamentary majority.

In a surprise move, the French National Assembly voted to back a motion rejecting a controversial immigration bill on Monday without even debating it. The motion, proposed by the Greens, gained support not only from left-wing representatives but also from members of the right-wing Les Républicains and the far-right National Rally

The government’s stunning defeat in parliament prompted opposition politicians to call for its dissolution. Jordan Bardella, the president of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, told BFMTV on Tuesday he was “ready to serve as prime minister”.

The Élysée Palace, meanwhile, has moved fast to try and stop the political fallout. After an emergency ministerial meeting on Tuesday, government spokesperson Olivier Véran announced the formation of a special joint commission aimed at breaking the parliamentary gridlock “as fast as possible”’. The commission will be composed of seven representatives from both houses of parliament and will aim to return the bill to both chambers for a vote, Véran said. 

French government spokesperson Olivier Véran holds a press conference after a cabinet meeting at the presidential Élysée Palace in Paris, on December 12, 2023. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

After months of seeking to secure a majority in the National Assembly for his flagship policy, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin had a lot riding on the legislation’s success. In response to the setback, Darmanin offered his resignation, which Macron rejected.  

Darmanin had actively courted the right for months in an attempt to secure a majority, accepting a substantial rewrite of the bill in the conservative-led Senate. However, the bill presented on Monday in the Assembly bore little resemblance to the one voted on in the Senate, much to the dismay of Les Républicains.

Speaking on TF1 on Monday after the vote, Darmanin acknowledged the defeat. “It is a failure, of course, because I want to provide resources for the police (…) and magistrates to combat undocumented immigration,” he said.

The limits of ‘en même temps’

Macron’s government has touted its proposed immigration law as a way to respond to voter concerns and prevent the far right from monopolising the immigration debate.  

“The president believes it is necessary to respond to what he sees as a public demand, given the multitude of events that have highlighted immigration issues in the news. This explains the government’s desire to show citizens that it takes the initiative and acts,” said Bruno Cautrès, a researcher at the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po Paris (CEVIPOF).

However, Monday’s debacle in the National Assembly has exposed the limitations of the politics of “en même temps” (“at the same time”) – an approach pursued by Macron since 2017, combining policy solutions from both the right and the left wings of French politics.  

What was possible with an absolute majority during Macron’s first term is no longer feasible with a minority government.

According to a poll conducted by Odoxa, 72% of French citizens consider better control of immigration to be the bill’s most important objective. But the French are far from unified on how they want to resolve the system’s issues – mirroring deep divisions between left and right.

While the proposed law is widely perceived as right-leaning, it failed to satisfy both the right and far right, who reject providing work permits to undocumented workers. Simultaneously, it proved too repressive for the left, which opposes restrictions on family reunifications and the introduction of an annual debate on migration quotas.

Politicians are urging Macron’s government to choose a side instead of attempting to please everyone. Olivier Marleix, the head of Les Républicains in the lower house, told French television channel LCI that his party was “ready to vote” if the text is revised to the version voted through by the Senate.  

“We want the government to choose sides: either it’s a right-wing text or a left-wing text, but it can’t be both at the same time.”

Even Macron’s political movement, Renaissance, exhibited internal divisions over the bill. The left wing of Renaissance, led by Sacha Houlié, the chairman of the lower house commission that amended the bill, expressed dissatisfaction with concessions made by Darmanin to the right, particularly regarding the stripping of healthcare rights for undocumented migrants.

Read moreFrench doctors vow to ‘disobey’ bill stripping undocumented migrants of healthcare rights

 

“We have red lines. It would be irresponsible to go beyond our political DNA … The adoption of the text cannot come at the cost of a division within the majority,” said Houlié in an interview with French Financial daily Les Échos on Sunday.

“It is very difficult to achieve consensus on immigration, which generates a diversity of perspectives and a clear division between right and left,” said Cautres. “There have been many hesitations by the government over the months. The balance is too difficult to find because this is typically the kind of issue where the contradictions of ‘Macronism’ can surface.”  

Fallout for Darmanin – and his colleagues

A day after having his resignation declined, Darmanin seems to have bounced back, for now. On a visit to a police station in the southeastern suburbs of Paris, Darmanin said Tuesday that “whatever path we take”, he wanted “firm measures” to be put in place by the end of the year.

But his contortions throughout the process have left a lasting impression. After expressing satisfaction with the Senate’s version which bore little resemblance to the initial bill, Darmanin had enthusiastically welcomed the version the National Assembly commission extensively revised – prompting critics to describe him as fickle.  

On Tuesday, Les Républicains party chief Eric Ciotti said he would like to work with Prime Minister Élizabeth Borne on the immigration law moving forward, suggesting his party had lost faith in the interior minister.   

“How can we talk to someone (Darmanin) who constantly insults us? It is up to the prime minister to lead this discussion,” he told Europe 1.  

If the new special joint commission fails to reach a breakthrough, it will pose a significant challenge for Borne and her government. If she still intends to adopt the bill, she may find herself compelled to use Article 49.3 – a controversial provision in the French constitution that allows the executive to bypass the National Assembly to pass a law. 

Triggering Article 49.3 for the 21st time in only 18 months would raise the political stakes even higher, particularly after the administration’s controversial use of it in the spring to pass pension reform occasioned protests and disruptive strikes across France that garnered the world’s attention.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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French doctors vow to ‘disobey’ bill stripping undocumented migrants of healthcare rights

A push by France’s conservative-led Senate to strip undocumented migrants of their access to free healthcare has sparked a public outcry among workers across the medical profession, many of whom have pledged to ignore a measure they describe as an ethical, sanitary and financial aberration.

Medical practitioners voiced their dismay in a flurry of media statements after senators from the right-wing Les Républicains amended a government-sponsored immigration bill last week to axe a scheme known as State Medical Aid (AME) – which provides free healthcare to undocumented migrants who have settled in France.

The amended bill, which will be examined by the National Assembly next month, was swiftly panned by health officials, who warned that it would present a threat to public health and that long-term costs would far exceed any initial savings.

The head of the Paris hospital consortium AP-HP said scrapping the AME would allow diseases to spread undected and ultimately increase the burden on France’s health system. The Federation of French Hospitals (FHF) described it as “humanitarian, sanitary and financial heresy”.

On Saturday, some 3,500 health workers signed a letter pledging to “continue to treat undocumented patients free of charge and based on their needs, in accordance with the Hippocratic Oath” they took. “Patients from here and elsewhere, our doors are open to you. And will remain so,” they added.

That would effectively mean working for free, said Antoine Pelissolo, a psychiatrist at a hospital east of Paris who co-authored the letter. “If they see a patient who is not covered (by health insurance), they will not be paid,” Pelissolo told AFP. “It’s a very strong stand.”

‘Guided by ideology rather than medical concern’

Set up in 2000, the AME gives undocumented migrants access to the free healthcare provided under France’s health insurance scheme. Beneficiaries must prove they have resided in France for at least three months and have a monthly income of less than €810 ($860).


The scheme has long been a favourite punching bag for critics on the right and far right, who accuse it of inciting illegal immigration – at a growing cost to French taxpayers.  

Last year, the AME counted 411,364 beneficiaries for a total cost of €1.2 billion, up from €900 million in 2018, according to the Inspection Générale des Affaires Sociales (IGAS), a government auditor.  

During debates in the Senate last week, Bruno Retailleau, the head of Les Républicains’ delegation, flagged the “steady increase in recent years, both in the number of AME beneficiaries and its total cost”. He added: “It is only natural that we look for ways to cut certain costs.”

In its amended bill, Retailleau’s party replaced the scheme with a more restrictive “emergency medical assistance” (AMU), which would cover only cases of “severe illness and acute pain”.

Read moreUndocumented workers left in limbo as French immigration bill delayed

The move betrays a sketchy understanding of healthcare, said Professor Pierre Tattevin, the deputy head of the French Infectious Diseases Society (SPILF), noting that the aim for medical workers is precisely to treat diseases before they become severe and acutely painful.

“It’s called prevention: if you treat something early, it will cost you less in the long run,” he explained, arguing that the debate over AME was “guided by ideology rather than medical concern”.

Cost of reform set to outweigh savings

While AME spending has increased in recent years, in line with immigration numbers, it still accounts for just 0.5% of France’s public health spending. According to an IGAS report from 2019, the scheme’s beneficiaries have lower healthcare costs than the general public, averaging around €2,600 per year – against a national average of roughly €3,000.

“The idea that AME costs us money is completely misguided,” said Tattevin. “Scrapping it would cost us a lot dearer than any savings it might generate.”

Earlier this month, some 3,000 health workers signed an op-ed in Le Monde warning that AME’s abolition “would lead to a deterioration in the health of undocumented workers, and more generally that of the population as a whole”.

 


Signatories included Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, the 2008 Nobel Prize laureate who helped discover HIV/AIDS, and Jean-François Delfraissy, the head of the scientific council that advised the French government during the Covid-19 pandemic.

They pointed to a recent precedent in Spain, where a 2012 law “restricting access to healthcare for illegal immigrants led to an increase in the incidence of infectious diseases and higher mortality rates”. The reform was finally repealed in 2018.

“If you bar part of the population from access to care, it will necessarily have repercussions,” said Tattevin, who also signed the Le Monde op-ed. “It could take months or years to show, but we would end up with hidden epidemics that eventually affect the wider public too,” he added.

A negotiating ploy?

Experts have largely debunked another criticism levelled at State Medical Aid: that its purported generosity induces migrants to choose France over other destinations.

In 2019, France’s former Human Rights Ombudsman, Jacques Toubon, lamented the “false idea that the ‘generosity’ of a scheme such as the AME would lead to an increase in illegal migratory flows by creating a ‘pull effect’”. Instead, he argued, “studies show that the need for care is a completely marginal cause of immigration”.

A 2022 study by France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) found that fewer than 10% of France’s undocumented migrants cited healthcare as a factor in their decision to move to the country. A separate survey by the IRDES healthcare research institute found that only half of those eligible for AME actually benefit from the scheme, owing to administrative obstacles and a lack of information.

Read moreMost migrants eligible for French state medical aid have not accessed their rights

Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne echoed Toubon’s words in a speech to the National Assembly in December 2022, aiming to “dispel misconceptions” about AME.

“No, state medical aid does not fuel illegal immigration. It’s a question of protection and public health,” she told lawmakers at the time. “No plans to migrate to France are motivated solely by the existence of this scheme.”

While Borne reiterated her stance last week, France’s hardline Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the immigration bill’s chief sponsor, has previously voiced support for a reform of AME in a bid to win over support from the right – only to backtrack in recent days.

On Sunday, Health Minister Aurélien Rousseau pledged to defend the scheme, saying he “understood” the doctors’ complaints. “The government will fight to ensure that they do not have to exercise civil disobedience,” he told France Info radio.

“One has the impression that it’s all part of a negotiation, that EMA’s abolition has been thrown in the mix only to be removed at the last minute,” said Tattevin. “That way they can say they’re open to compromise and argue that their law isn’t as harsh as critics say.”

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Why is Pakistan deporting Afghan migrants and refugees? | Explained

The story so far: On October 31, the Torkham Crossing — five kilometres west of Khyber Pass, on the border connecting Pakistan’s Peshawar with Afghanistan’s Jalalabad — saw a sudden influx of at least 24,000 Afghan refugees packed in trucks and convoys, with whatever luggage they could take from demolished homes. Some crossed over, while others were stranded, unclear about where to go.

The mass exodus was triggered by an order from Pakistan’s interim government asking ‘illegal refugees’ to leave the country by October end, or face deportation. The new anti-immigrant policy comes beforethe general elections next year, when hyperinflation, political instability and rising crime rates are expected to dominate voter issues.

The United Nations called the decision a ‘human rights catastrophe’ which, if not stopped, will put hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled persecution in neighbouring Afghanistan at ‘grave risk.’

Afghan nationals with their belongings gather as they head back to Afghanistan, after Pakistan gives last warning to undocumented immigrants to leave, at the Torkham border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
| Photo Credit:
Reuters

Who is Pakistan deporting?

A few days before the October 31 deadline, Pakistan’s acting interior minister Sarfraz Bugti told reporters, “There will be no compromise against illegal refugees… We are going door to door, and we have done geofencing. We will detain and deport them.”

‘Them’ here refers to the almost 17 lakh people living in Pakistan with no legal documentation, a large number of whom are Afghans who sought refuge in the country after fleeing persecution in a war-stricken Afghanistan. Human rights agencies estimate that about 60% of Afghan refugees in Pakistan are undocumented, and say the decision will worsen the trend of arbitrary detentions and harassment Afghan migrants have faced over the last two years.

Almost two lakh refugees have ‘voluntarily’ complied with the October expulsion orders, Mr. Bugti said, some using the Torkham stretch while others used the Chaman crossing in Balochistan. The exodus started as a trickle, with authorities seeing 300 people a day at the outset; this has now increased to more than 10,000 arrivals per day, aid agencies said. Authorities reportedly demolished the houses of Afghan nationals living in illegal settlements, leaving many stranded and fearing arrest. Rights groups allege the police have harassed and illegally detained all migrants, with or without documentation, under the guise of implementing its new anti-immigration policy.

Pakistan’s Afghan refugee population

Government figures show Pakistan is home to about 40 lakh refugees and migrants. As of June this year, Afghan refugees number above 13 lakhs, forming a large chunk of the immigrant pool.

The migration of Afghan nationals to Pakistanhappened in waves. The most recent wave was in August 2021 after the Taliban came to power, compelling some six lakh people to flee persecution in their home country. The starting point of steady migration along this route dates back to 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan; families fled to neighbouring Pakistan andbuilt lives, livelihoods and families there. “I was born and raised in Pakistan. All my siblings were born here…Pakistan is now home, not Afghanistan, and we will be refugees there,” Mir Agha, a 23-year-old who was forcibly deported, told The Guardian this week.

Afghan refugees require a Proof of Registration (PoR) card to legally remain in Pakistan. The route to a PoR is, however, barricaded by an onerous bureaucratic regime, paperwork and interminable delays. Many find their visas have expired while undergoing the registration process. Amnesty International flagged that the delayed process and expired visas amplify the legal vulnerability of Afghan refugees.

During the current exodus, Mr. Agha’s proof of refuge card issued by the UNHCR was “scissored by the police” after arrest, he told a reporter. As things stand, Afghan nationals in Pakistan are caught in an “impossible situation,” as Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for South Asia, has previously highlighted. People were uprooted and forsaken by a home they had been born into, and a home they had sought out of necessity. “Their ambiguous legal status and arduous processes for asylum or third-country relocation have made them even more vulnerable,” she added.

The UNHCR in February 2023 renewed its non-return advisory, first issued in August 2021, barring a forced return of Afghan nationals and asylum seekers whose claims were rejected. The alarm bells ring louder for minorities, women and journalists who are being forced to return to a country languishing under the Taliban regime. “This would particularly put women and girls in grave danger as they would be exposed to persecution and other serious human rights violations simply because of their sex and their gender. For an overwhelming majority of them, living and studying in Pakistan may be their only chance of gaining a formal education,” Amnesty International said in a statement. Since August 2021, the Taliban has imposed bans on young and unmarried women from accessing health centres, schools and universities, public spaces, or pursuing means of employment.

Also vulnerable are those who worked for the U.S., the U.K. and other Western countries before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Currently, two Afghan families awaiting transfer are suing the British government for not doing enough. Washington has asked Islamabad “to ensure the protection of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, including those in the U.S. resettlement and immigration pipelines,” per an NPR report.

Afghanistan’s fragility compounds the refugees’ struggle. Taliban’s human rights violations aside, food insecurity, earthquakes and economic woes further ail the nation. Philippa Candler, the UNHCR representative in Pakistan, told the BBC that a series of devastating earthquakes have “heavily” impacted the situation. “On top of that, winter is approaching so it’s not the best season to have people going back to a country that is already in a very fragile situation,” she said.

The Taliban has criticised the decision and asked for more time; in the meantime, it has prepared temporary refugee camps equipped with water, food, and health facilities and said it would help refugees find jobs, per media reports.

“Afghan refugees’ lives and rights are at stake due to the collective failure of the Pakistan Government and the international community to share the responsibility for their protection. This is simply unacceptable.”Deprose Muchena, senior director of Amnesty

Is the deportation legal?

The Dawn reported that some human rights activists and politicians challenged the “mass deportation” before the Supreme Court this week. The forceful detention and harassment are illegal, unconstitutional and violative of people’s fundamental rights, their petition argues. The government has “failed to distinguish between birthright citizens and illegal immigrants,” as the law grants those born in Pakistan a claim to birthright citizenship, it says. For others, it has urged the Court to allow aid agencies to expeditiously process registration applications.

Rights groups have also urged Pakistan to “stop the crackdown against, and harassment of, Afghan refugees across the country” in keeping with international legal obligations. Under the principle of non-refoulment, the United Nations specifies that countries are forbidden from directly or indirectly forcing people from returning to a place of persecution, “where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm” and this principle “applies to all migrants at all times, irrespective of migration status.” 

Why did Pakistan announce deportation?

Pakistan says it is operating from a place of self-preservation — to protect its economy and national security. The cash-strapped government has struggled to stabilise a collapsing economy, as a depreciating rupee, plummeting foreign exchange reserves and inflation add to people’s woes. Critics fear Pakistan’s worsening political crisis — marked by a power tussle between the military and civilian government — will further stir the economic pot. The present caretaker government, led by interim Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, is expected to remain safe from any fallout from contentious immigration or economic policies, as Mr. Kakar is perceived to be “closer” to the military.

Hameed Hakimi, an associate at Chatham House, told a media outlet, “From a domestic socio-political and security environment point of view, this is the time for the state to show that it’s doing something about it. And the refugees seem to be a natural target….”

While announcing the deportation, Mr. Bugti also linked the migrant population with crimes and drug trafficking. “There have been 24 suicide bomb attacks since January this year and 14 of them were carried out by Afghan nationals,” he said. Terror-related incidents peaked in 2022 and 2023, with deadly suicide bombings in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region and a mosque in Peshawar. Mr. Bugti implied a linear relationship between the flow of Afghan nationals and crime rates; however, analysts attribute the violence to Pakistan’s ‘dual policy’ of supporting some terror groups for geopolitical goals. The “terror triad”, as researcher Imtiaz Gul called it in an article, plays out between Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the ethnic Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) — with Pakistan tailoring its war on terror depending on the militant group. Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban regime has also deteriorated as the TTP leadership, which plotted the Peshawar attacks on Afghan soil, enjoys freedom in Afghanistan.

Research has made tenuous links between refugee intake and crime rates: a 2021 study highlighted that it is often the host countries’ attitudes about foreigners and the economic conditions that shape domestic terrorism risks.

Also Read | Pakistan’s internal challenges, shifting dynamics

Political analysts argue that Afghan refugees are being ‘scapegoated’ for the government’s collective failure to take responsibility for Pakistan’s economic and security woes. “To deflect blame from the challenges that the government or the country overall is facing, they always raised the issue of illegal immigrants chiefly from Afghanistan,” Mr. Hakimi noted. This ‘blame game’ is used as a fig leaf, indicating that “the country’s problem largely arises from neighbouring countries instead of focusing internally on their own government’s policies.”

Pakistan had previously censured Western countries for a lack of effort and initiative to support Afghan refugees for their return. Rights groups and aid agencies note that in addition to the government, the international community has also defaulted on its responsibility to protect refugees who find themselves at the centre of Pakistan’s turbulent triad of economics, security and politics.

Fortyt-seven-year-old Khair Muhammad, who was “harassed” and forced out of his rented house in Dina, told Al Jazeera: “I am tired. How many times do I have to move countries to protect myself and my family?”

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Migration ‘used to mobilise voters’ ahead of elections in Slovakia and Poland

Migration has become a hot-button issue in Slovakia and Poland ahead of upcoming elections on September 30 and October 15, with politicians evoking the hotly debated topic to galvanise voters and governments reintroducing border checks in the region.

A surge in illegal migration along the Balkan route into Slovakia has local politicians calling for increased border control in recent weeks. This comes ahead of knife-edge legislative elections on September 30 in which Slovakia’s two-time prime minister Robert Fico and his pro-Russian populist SMER-SD party are hoping to stage a comeback.

Poland has also seen the re-emergence of migration as a hot-button issue ahead of parliamentary elections on October 15. The ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, fighting a close election against the centre-right Civic Coalition (KO) party, has made migration a central campaign issue with the objective of shoring up votes.

“For some parties further on the right, migration was always a no-go,” says Alena Kudzko, Vice President for Policy and Programming at GLOBSEC think tank in Bratislava. Yet over the past few weeks, more centrist leaning parties have started campaigning on migration in the hope of a last-minute boost in votes, she adds.

The narratives were similar across the board, with “many politicians declaring ‘we should protect Slovakia; migration is not safe for Slovaks’”, says Kudzko. Hoping to ride the wave of anti-migration sentiment prevalent in Slovak society, even the pro-European social-democratic party HLAS-SD published billboards stating, “Stop illegal migration” just weeks before the election.

A reintroduction of border checks in the region

An uptick in illegal migration on the Balkan route to central Europe has also prompted some Slovak politicians to call for tighter border controls.

Slovakia has seen a surge of migrants, many from Afghanistan and Syria, in recent months. In the first eight months of 2023, the country registered approximately 24,500 migrants who had entered illegally – most of them from Serbia through Hungary.

The rising number of illegal migrants crossing its borders prompted neighbouring Poland to introduce checks on vehicles crossing the border from Slovakia on September 25. This came after the Czech Republic and Austria reintroduced border controls with Slovakia last year to stem the flow of immigrants.

Some politicians blame Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for the sudden influx as part of an effort to boost the chances of fellow anti-migrant politician Fico of returning to office on September 30. Many migrants now in Slovakia had no difficulty entering the country from Hungary, and Orban is believed to have released more than 1,400 people from prison who had been sentenced for human trafficking.

Fico has regularly highlighted the surge in illegal migration during the election campaign. “We want to remind the Slovak government that it has all options — legislative, technical and personnel — to revive border controls on the Slovak-Hungarian border,” he said during a press conference broadcasted on Facebook.

Slovakia’s caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Ludovít Odor has said it is impossible to seal the border with Hungary, which stretches over 650 km. It has sent up to 500 soldiers to help police patrolling border areas and taken measures to register migrants quickly.

Migration was ranked in a recent poll as the third item on a list of voter’s concerns, with 15% of voters saying they were worried about illegal migration. “Politicians are trying to appeal to this concerned segment of the population calling for a much harsher position on migration,” said Kudzko.

The parties that campaign on tightening migration policies know the issue is even higher on their supporters’ agenda. Between 20-30% of voters of SMER-SD and the far-right parties, SNS and Republika, said that migration is Slovakia’s biggest problem – a much greater percentage than across the entire population. 

But Kudzko believes that the illegal migration situation in Slovakia has been exaggerated in the runup to elections. “The truth is that most people don’t stay. Transit countries, like Slovakia, know that they just need to wave migrants through,” she says, while comparing the situation with that of Poland, where migrants who managed to cross the Polish-Belarusian border often continued on to Germany.

‘A fear of migration’ in Poland

In Poland, a battle is playing out between PiS and Civic Platform for the future control of parliament, with migration “being used to build up emotion and mobilise voters”, according to Andrzej Bobinski, a political analyst with Polityka Insight. 

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki announced on September 29 that Poland will uphold its veto on a European Union migration pact as the bloc seeks a deal for the sharing of the responsibility for asylum seekers who reach Europe outside of official border crossings.

Poland’s leaders, expressing their opposition to the European Union’s plan to relocate migrants and asylum seekers within the bloc, have frequently argued that they have already fulfilled their migrant quota by welcoming around one million Ukrainian refugees since the beginning of the war.

A sentiment of fatigue with the war in Ukraine is also setting in. The far-right party Confederacja (Confederation), says Poland is not getting the gratitude it deserves for arming Ukraine and accepting its refugees.

The emergence of Confederation has put pressure on the Polish political establishment as PiS may have to accept the latter as a coalition partner to stay in power.

Several factors could play into the ruling party’s hand on Election Day. “The migrant crisis on the border with Belarus in [2021]  … caused a big scare in Poland. Pis built a wall and they keep organising events like press conferences around the wall every day,” says Bobinski.

The ruling party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski also frequently uses photos of recent events in Lampedusa. Earlier this month, some 8,500 migrants arrived on the tiny Italian fishing island in the space of a few days, overwhelming the tourist destination.

“People are not changing their views, they will either vote for PiS or KO. The only thing both parties can do is mobilise their voters which belong to highly polarised camps,” says Bobinski.

Yet, “whatever happens at the end of the day, for many people at the bottom of their soul, there is a fear of migration”, concludes Bobinski.

(With AFP) 

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From welcoming refugees to the crisis in Lampedusa, six years of French immigration policy

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced on Tuesday that France would not be taking in any of the migrants who arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa last week. FRANCE 24 looks back at six years of French U-turns on immigration policies.

Having lamented for years that the Mediterranean has become “the world’s biggest cemetery”, Pope Francis is visiting the French port city of Marseille on Friday to reinforce his message that the region should welcome migrants.

His visit comes as Lampedusa, a small Italian island nestled in the Mediterranean between Tunisia and Malta, saw a record number of migrant arrivals last week. Some 8,500 people reached the island’s shores, briefly exceeding its resident population of 6,100.

But the pope’s call for peace may fall on deaf ears, as EU nations like Italy and France pledge tougher immigration measures.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Monday called for a naval blockade of North Africa to prevent smuggler boats from leaving the continent, lengthened detention time for migrants awaiting repatriation and announced the creation of more detention centres in remote areas.

France boosted border patrols on its southern frontier with Italy and amplified its drone surveillance of the Alps to keep people from crossing over. The government has held firm on its decision not to take in migrants from Lampedusa.

“[We] will not take in migrants,” French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told national TV channel TF1 on Tuesday. “It’s not by taking in more people that we’re going to stem a flow that obviously affects our ability to integrate [them into French society],” he said.

Darmanin’s words come at a time where immigration has once again taken centre stage in French politics. As the country’s hung parliament wrangles over a draft law governing new arrivals, President Emmanuel Macron has evoked a possible referendum on the topic.

No one knows whether the referendum will actually take place or what question will be posed. But that very sense of uncertainty matches France’s indecision on immigration policy over the past six years.

FRANCE 24 takes a look back at the string of U-turns and contradictions Macron has made on the issue since taking office in 2017, a journey worthy of whiplash.

  • January 2017: Macron praises Angela Merkel’s stance on migration

While he was still running for presidency on January 2, 2017, Macron published an op-ed in French daily Le Monde. In the article, he praised former German Chancellor Angela Merkel for having taken in a large number of migrants years earlier – at a time where most European countries wouldn’t.

“When Italy was alone in handling the arrival of refugees in Lampedusa, to the point of deeply moving Pope Francis, neither France nor Germany were there to help,” Macron wrote. “Greece has also long been on the front line, helpless and overwhelmed in the face of the influx of refugees and migrants. That being said, Chancellor Merkel and German society as a whole have lived up to our shared values – they have saved our collective dignity by taking in refugees in distress, housing them and training them.”

Shortly after he took office, Macron spelled out his vision for welcoming migrants and specifically asylum seekers more clearly. A few months after publishing the op-ed, he made a speech in Orléans, a city south of Paris, in which he stated: “By the end of this year, I no longer want there to be men and women in the streets, in the woods or lost … It’s a matter of dignity, of humanity and also of efficiency. I want to ensure that, wherever emergency accommodation is built to take in [asylum seekers], there are also administrative facilities in place to process their requests.”

In 2023, tens of thousands of migrants are still sleeping rough, according to the Abbé Pierre Foundation, which finances and supports associations that fight against substandard housing.

  • Summer 2018: France rejects dock request from Aquarius migrant ship

The summer of 2018 was marked by diplomatic quarrels between France and Italy, especially regarding the request to dock the Aquarius – a migrant ship chartered by the European humanitarian organisation SOS Mediterranée, which carries out search and rescue missions for migrants lost at sea.

The dispute began in June, when Italy refused to let the ship dock with 629 migrants on board. Macron criticised the “cynicism and irresponsibility” of the Italian government’s decision to close its ports, while refusing to let the ship dock in France. After a week of being stuck off the coast of Sicily, Spain finally agreed to let the Aquarius dock on June 17, before it moved on to Marseille. Of the 629 people on board, 78 were taken in by France.

But a few weeks later, on September 25, the French government refused to let the Aquarius, and the remaining 58 migrants on board, dock for a second time. This time, Malta agreed to take in the migrants but not the ship, which had to stay offshore. Although France eventually took in 17 of the 58 remaining migrants, it still refused to let the ship dock.

Progression of asylum applications and number of asylum statuses granted over the last six years in France. © FRANCE 24 graphic design studio

  • September 2018: A controversial asylum and immigration bill

In the summer of 2018, Macron’s initial Interior Minister Gérard Collomb passed a bill on asylum and immigration that was slammed by non-profit organisations helping refugees across the board. Measures that were soundly criticised included the doubling of the 45-day detention period for illegal migrants to 90 days, the possibility of placing children in detention centres and cutting the maximum processing time for asylum seekers from 120 to 90 days.  

The controversial bill exposed divisions within Macron’s party, who had a majority in parliament at the time. More than a dozen MPs abstained from voting and one MP voted against the bill. The legislation even sparked wrath from the right. Former right-wing minister Jacques Toubon, who later became the French Human Rights Defender, told French daily Le Monde that the bill treated asylum seekers “badly”.

  • November 2019: Prime Minister Édouard Philippe restricts healthcare access for migrants

On November 6, 2019, then French prime minister Édouard Philippe announced a new immigration plan that aimed to combat what the government called “medical tourism”.  The government claimed that the medical coverage offered to migrants was attracting newcomers to France, so they decided to restrict access to healthcare.

For asylum seekers who are not minors, a three-month waiting period to access universal coverage was introduced, and the list of treatments covered was reduced for foreign nationals receiving state medical aid (AME).  

  • November 2020: Brutal dismantling of migrant camp in central Paris

Hundreds of migrants were violently dispersed in central Paris on the night of November 23, 2020, only a few days after a migrant camp housing 2,000 people was dismantled in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis.

During the evacuation operation in central Paris, police officers were accused of violence as they broke up the migrant camp at the Place de la République. Images on social media showed officers hitting protesters and picking up tents, sometimes with people still inside – prompting the country’s interior minister to say that some of the scenes were “shocking” and order an inquiry.

“You can’t respond to misery with police batons. It is urgent, essential and indisputable that the migrants in Saint-Denis who live on the streets should be given shelter. The honour of the French Republic is at stake,” said Delphine Rouilleault, director of the non-profit “France terre d’asile”, which has criticised the treatment of migrants in Calais for years. “When tents aren’t being torn down by police, it’s the ‘jungle’ [the name of the former immigration camp in the Calais region] itself that is dismantled using bulldozers.”

Progression of residence permits granted by the French government over the years.
Progression of residence permits granted by the French government over the years. © FRANCE 24 graphic design studio

  • August 2021: After the Taliban retake control of Afghanistan, France must protect itself against ‘irregular migratory flows’

When France began repatriating its nationals after the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, Macron declared it was his country’s “duty” and “dignity” to protect Afghans (including translators and cooks) who had worked for France on the ground.

But the French president also warned that Europe would have to protect itself “against significant irregular migratory flows”.  His statement was condemned by the left as well as humanitarian organisations, who saw it as showing a shameful lack of empathy for the Afghans.

In the weeks that followed, France was accused of not doing enough for the Afghan people – particularly Afghan interpreters and women. A total of 2,600 Afghans were evacuated to France, compared with 8,000 to the UK and 4,000 to Germany.

  • February 2022: More than a hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees welcomed

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 prompted large numbers of Ukrainians to flee their country and seek refuge in western Europe. France quickly opened its borders and spent €500 million on welcoming those in need. As a result, more than 110,000 refugees arrived on French soil within a year – 80 percent of whom were women, according to official data released by the interior ministry on February 24, 2023, a year after the war broke out.

Refugee NGOs applauded the French government’s efforts, but also viewed them as a double standard in relation to how those fleeing the Global South are treated. “We’re very happy that things are going well for Ukrainians, but we found the whole thing incredibly unfair. When they are Africans or Afghans, we’re told there is nowhere to house them and they end up sleeping rough. On the other hand, when it’s Ukrainians – people we can identify with – they open accommodation centres,” Yann Mazi, founder of French non-profit Utopia 56, told French daily Libération.

  • November 2022: France accepts the Ocean Viking rescue ship but suspends plan to take in 3,500 refugees

Four years after the Aquarius migrant ship was barred from docking in Italy, a new rescue vessel chartered by SOS Méditerranée, the Ocean Viking, caused a renewed diplomatic spat between France and Italy.

When Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni refused to allow the ship carrying 234 migrants to dock at an Italian port, French Interior Minister Darmanin announced on November 10, 2022 that France would “as an exception” welcome the Ocean Viking in Toulon.

After declaring that France would receive a third of the migrants on board, Darmanin went on to describe Italy’s decision as “incomprehensible” and “lacking humanity”, calling Meloni’s behaviour “contrary to the solidarity and commitments” made by Rome.

However, in protest at Italy’s behaviour, Darmanin then suspended a plan to take in 3,500 refugees who had arrived in Italy. The transfer was planned as part of a European burden-sharing accord.

In line with the multiple U-turns the French government has made on its migration policy over the years, it plans to relaunch its immigration bill – initially planned for the start of 2023 – this autumn.

The bill aims to make it easier to expel foreigners who “pose a serious threat to public order” and give special residence permits to undocumented migrants already working in understaffed sectors in France.

This article has been translated from the original in French

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