It's a drizzly Friday morning in July. Anne Romier is out near Paris' Gare de l'Est train station, looking for illegal immigrants.
She's a social worker with France Terre d'Asile—France, land of Asylum—a refugee rights organization. Each week she comes out here with an interpreter—they explain the asylum system to anyone who will listen.
Interpreter: Donc voila, ici nous sommes chez les kurdes
These are the Kurds, says the interpreter, who asked not to have his name used on the air; he's a refugee himself. Each immigrant group gathers in a different place: Pakistanis near a phone booth on one side; Afghans in a nearby square.
This morning, Romier and the interpreter found a group of Kurdish men in an alleyway behind a school
Two are lying in sleeping bags on the ground next to a chain-linked fence. Romier and the interpreter learn that they are Kurds from Iraq
As they talk, three more men emerge from a red tent nearby. This 22-year old man speaks halting English.
Man: Come here? Uh- three day… Sarah: Three days ago? Man: yeah. Sarah: Where are you going? Man: Britania….
“Britania". He's on his way to England:
Man: To my friend in Britania. To Manchester to England.
He's from Kirkuk. Why did he leave? He talks of bombs, and not finding work:
Man: Iraq problems. No working. No home.
Romier and the interpreter try to find out if any of the men are planning on staying in France, and if they'll ask for asylum. The interpreter explains to that one man is saying he doesn't think the refugee status exists in France anymore
Interpreter: D'après que nous avons entendu, en France le statu de refugié n'existe plus
Romier assures everyone that's not true, though each case is different.
A refugee can stay in France, and in any country that signed the United Nations convention relating to refugees. These countries have agreed to provide refuge to people fleeing persecution. The process of asking for protection varies from one country to another, but the basic premise is that you need to prove that you've been persecuted, or will be persecuted if you go back home.
You'd think that getting asylum as an Iraqi is a done deal—you're fleeing a war zone. But in fact, in France it's not so easy. Pascal Baudoin is the Communications director at OFPRA, France's asylum office.
Beaudoin [translation]: Traditionally, the basis of the Iraqi asylum request was someone who was of the Kurdish ethnicity. But there were also quite a number of Christians. Today we notice that there are fewer Kurds, and we have more people from the center of Iraq- from cities near Baghdad.
Beaudoin says that before 2003 and the fall of Sadam Hussein, most Iraqi asylum applicants in France asked for protection from political persecution. Today, he says, the requests are more varied.
Beaudoin [translation]: There are many requests that go beyond politics, that are more social or professional, that today present risks---personal risks--given the current situation in Iraq… The position he had in a university, for example.
The United Nations refugee agency estimates that about four million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes. They've fled because of the war, but also because of they don't feel safe in their neighborhoods.
The Iraqi Kurds I've met here in France describe a life of virtual lockdown at home—they were afraid to go outside, which made it impossible to find a job---and impossible to keep living there. Serouan Kalifa is an Iraqi from Kirkuk who arrived in France in 2003.
Kalifa [translation]: In my country, every day there's a problem. In Iraq, terrorists knock on your door, and ask for money. If you don't give them, they kill you.
Kalifa was initially denied asylum in France. He's in the process of appealing the decision.
Over two million Iraqis have taken refuge outside of the country, most in Syria, but also in Jordan and throughout the Middle East. A lot fewer have come to Europe. In 2006, 20-thousand Iraqis applied for asylum in the European Union, almost half of them in Sweden, which has a relatively welcoming policy towards Iraqi refugees.
In France, it's a different story. Only about a-hundred Iraqis were granted asylum here last year. Pascal Baudoin of the asylum office says it's because they're not applying.
Beaudoin [translation]: These requests have always been very low. They've never gone beyond 300 per year. It's quite low, compared to the tens of thousands of requests we get each year. There have never been many Iraqi applicants. There isn't really a “tradition" of Iraqi asylum seekers in France
Getting to France in the first place isn't easy, explains Matthieu Tardis, who is in charge of European Affairs at France Terre d'Asile
Tardis: To get to the EU they have to get a special type of passport they can only ask in Baghdad. Can you imagine the danger, they have to go across the country, and queue outside the embassy. They risk their life to get this passport.
The ones who make it to Europe do so illegally.
Tardis: Most of them they go through Turkia, and then to Greece, and then they are in the European Union, and go to other European countries
They go any way they can, by boat, by train, smuggled in trucks. This man came in through Italy, and then got in a truck that was headed to France:
Man [translation]: I was in a truck that went to Calais. I got out of the truck. It was midnight that I got out. I went to the train station, and the police stopped me. They asked me what country I was from. I said I was an Iraqi who came to Europe. They asked if I was staying in France. And I stayed.
Back near the train station, one man shows his back to the social worker. It has welts on it. It hurts, he says through the interpreter:
Interpreter: Il dit qu'il a mal au dos parce qu'il a passé 24 heurs sous un camion.
He spent 24 hours holding onto the underside of a truck to get to France. Romier asks if he'd like to go to the hospital-
Interpreter: Oui, pourquoi pas, il veut bien aller a l'hôpital si possible.
Why not, he says. Romier then writes a note for the doctors at a nearby clinic where he can get checked out
Few Iraqis stick around France long enough to even start an asylum application.
Tardis: most of the time the go to countries where they have relatives, friends, national communities. In France we have communities from Turkey, China, West Africa. There's a Kurdish community but they are more from Turkey. Not especially from Iraq. That's why they come to [Sweden or] England
Interpreter: Lui il dit pour ma part, je veux partir pour l'Angleterre. Pareil, les deux vont partir pour l'Angleterre
The five men near the train station say they're all leaving for England as soon as they can.
Few Iraqis ask for asylum in France, but according to Beaudoin at the OFPRA asylum office, the ones who do apply are granted at a much higher rate than others:
Beaudoin [translation]: The average rate of asylum grants from OFPRA, all its decisions for everyone, for the first semester of 2007, for example, is 10 percent. For the Iraqis it's 30 percent. That 30 percent is the rate of initial applications. Those who are denied can appeal. If we take into account all the decisions, the first applications and the appeals decisions, that rate goes over 50 percent- almost to 60 percent.
Despite the relatively high acceptance rate, Iraqis are still not staying in France. Some have no choice. Ahmad Kalid Farman has gone back and forth between France and England a few times since 2003--- and ended up in France because he ran out of money. He was denied asylum, and is waiting for an answer to his appeal:
Farman [translation]: You sleep in the street, under a bridge in the park. You ask for change or a cigarette. That's not life
Serouan Kalifa has had a similar experience:
Kalifa [translation]: It's too difficult. I have no work- I'm not allowed to. I can't get any financial aid. I got it for a year, now I don't get it anymore. Each day you wonder what's going to happen. You think of your family. For us it's hard
Tardis: They are in limbo. They don't have any access to status, refugee status, or any other right to stay in France. They are in limbo. It's one of the big lack of our system in France.
Asylum advocates like Matthieu Tardis would like to see more Iraqis welcomed into France through a refugee resettlement program—where the government works with the UNHCR on the ground to bring people over. But France has resisted such a program.
Tardis: They would rather give more money to the UNHCR, to the countries, to Jordan and Syria. But I'm not sure they want to welcome more immigrants
In July, the French minister of foreign affairs announced more support the UNHCR working in Syria and Jordan. Tardis wonders if the reluctance to having more Iraqi refugees in France isn't linked to politics around the start of the US-lead invasion of Iraq.
Tardis: Maybe somehow in France they think maybe we aren't part of the war, we don't have to do so much with the refugees from there, because we are not responsible for the situation.
In the meantime, Iraqi immigrants look for help anyway they can, whether they're staying for three days or three years.
Anne Romier, the social worker, asks the men by the train station what they're eating
Interpreter: On mange qu'une fois par jour.
They're only eating one meal a day.
Romier gives them the address of a church with a soup kitchen. There's only so much she can do, though. Until France establishes a more long-term solution for Iraqi refugees, they will continue to be like these young men: passing through, camping out on the street, wondering what will happen next.
In Paris, this is Sarah Elzas.
This piece aired September 10, 2007 on RFI
Producer: Sarah Elzas
Recorded in Paris, France