Friday, July 10, 2009

Feminizing the Asylum Process in France

Last month, Dr. Jane Freedman, Marie Curie Professor of Politics at the Sorbonne, (pictured below right) published a report for UNHCR on the situation of female asylum-seekers and refugees in France. Responding to a gap in the literature and in the statistical data collected by the French government on the treatment of female asylum-seekers, Dr. Freedman's study offers troubling and fascinating findings. While women are more likely to be granted asylum in France than men and also more likely to be granted subsidiary protection, female asylum seekers still face significant discrimination in the asylum process.
The proportion of female asylum seekers in France has grown every year since L'Office Français de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides (OFPRA) began collecting data in 2001; increasing from under 30% in that year, females constituted over 36% of asylum seekers by 2007. Dr. Freedman notes that OFPRA's response is to offer subsidiary protection in many gender-based asylum cases -- such as claims of FGM, forced marriage or prostitution -- that could have been eligible for asylum. (Subsidiary protection status must be renewed annually, while asylum status is granted for at least three years.) Even more concerning, in response to increasing numbers of asylum claims from Mali based on female genital mutilation, OFPRA restricted its protection policy such that only women who have recently entered France can apply for asylum based on the fear that their daughter will be forced to undergo FGM.
Dr. Freedman identifies as a serious problem the ad hoc approach to gender issues in the asylum process and recommends that these issues instead be addressed comprehensively and systematically. So, for example, while French jurisprudence on gender-based asylum claims is advancing, decision-makers don't apply the caselaw consistently, such that asylum applicants with very similar claims may be awarded different statuses for no apparent reason. This problem might be resolved through the publication of guidelines on gender-based claims to asylum (which exist in Canada, the USA, Australia, South Africa, Sweden and the UK). Even NGOs that assist asylum seekers fail to approach gender issues comprehensively. Though one NGO, Group Asile Femmes, has created a guide for NGOs on issues particular to the reception of female asylum seekers, this effort needs more resources and support to ensure its success.
So what are the gender issues that arise in the asylum process in France? Dr. Freedman provides several important examples. First, female asylum seekers have the right to request a female officer and interpreter in France, but none of the female asylum seekers she interviewed knew about this right. Second, unlike the practice in some other European countries, no childcare is offered for asylum seekers undergoing interviews at the asylum office. While this may seem a utopian expectation, the reality is harsh: one mother's asylum interview was cut short after 10 minutes because her baby was crying; she expected to be scheduled for a second interview but instead received a rejection letter. Even more disturbing, the French government provides no specific medical attention for pregnant women in the Zone d'Attente (the detention area at ports of entry for asylum seekers who apply at the border). Pregnant women detained in these areas are not admitted to the hospital or even allowed access to medical treatment; as a result, several have given birth in the Zone d'Attente at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport. Finally, the study discusses the specific issues faced by trafficked women who apply for asylum. These women are often forced to leave their home because of ethnic or religious-based violence and then fall into the hands of traffickers in another part of their country. Traffickers use this history of persecution to draft and file asylum claims on behalf of trafficked women, controlling the process tightly so the trafficking issues don't surface. Women who are then able tell the full story of their trafficking are denied asylum because they have changed their claim. Kudos to Dr. Freedman for shedding light on these significant problems and for taking on this important study in a meticulous and thoughtful fashion.

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