This post is by Hélène Bonvalot, former Director General at Centre Primo Levi in Paris, France and a Fulbright Fellow at the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) International in Washington, DC.

As the leader of a French NGO working with refugees, I am often asked whether the asylum system in France is more effective than in the United States. Most of my American colleagues believe that the situation cannot be any worse than here, but in fact, seeking asylum is challenging everywhere, with differences and similarities.

From a legal perspective, the same criteria apply to qualify for asylum in both countries. These are defined by the terms of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, which are enshrined in the French Constitution and European Union regulations.

However, these protective principles are being challenged by restrictive policies, which result from growing anti-migration feelings. A striking example is the January 2024 French law “to control immigration and improve integration.” This rule relies on a narrow interpretation of the right to asylum, and speeds up the procedure to prevent people from settling in France. Similarly, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which was recently approved by the European Parliament, aims to strengthen controls at the EU’s external borders, harmonize asylum policies between EU member states--including the least welcoming--and enhance cooperation with third countries to prevent migrants from reaching Europe.

Despite the political will to restrict asylum, Europe and the U.S. are both facing increased migration flows, mostly due to various international crises, such as war and natural disasters. According to the European Union Asylum Agency, 1.1 million asylum applications were registered in 2023 in the EU, up by 18% compared to 2022 and a level reminiscent the 2015-16 "refugee crisis," caused by the conflict in Syria.

The increase is significant in France, where 142,500 new asylum applications were submitted in 2023. This represents an 8.6% increase over 2022, and exceeds the figures from 2010 by 90,000, and 2016, by 60,000. Although France is the second destination for asylum seekers in Europe after Germany, with 15% of the applications received in 2023, it stands only in 13th place in terms of the number of applications per capita. Despite its major role in the promotion of human rights, France is no longer such a welcoming country for those fleeing war and persecution.

The main access point to Europe is now the central Mediterranean route via Libya and Lampedusa (an Italian island located between Tunisia and Malta). Before they reach European shores, asylum seekers face many hardships, including enslavement in Libya, criminal smugglers, and storms at sea. Most undergo a traumatic journey, that substantially alters their narrative and their capacity to cope with the administrative pathways that follow.

Once migrants reach France and apply for asylum, there are many challenges. While the procedure in France is quite different from the U.S., both systems are complex and difficult to navigate without support from civil society. Whereas asylum seekers in the U.S. endure long waits before getting an interview, people seeking asylum in France face an opposite problem, as there is significant pressure to process cases quickly in order to prevent migrants from settling in the country.

In 2023, the average wait time for an interview with the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (Ofpra) was 4.2 months. The wait time for an appeal before the Immigration Court was 6.1 months. These short time frames give asylum seekers very little time to complete their applications, which require that they write their narrative in French in a clear and consistent manner, and that they prepare for the interview or hearing, which potentially determines the course of the rest of their lives. All this takes place while asylum seekers are often still recovering from long and traumatic journeys, and living in precarious conditions. Speeding up the process also reduces procedural guarantees, particularly at the French Immigration Court, where three-judge panels (which had included one representative from UNHCR) are being replaced by a single judge.

Another difference--at least in theory--between France and the U.S. is that asylum seekers in France receive basic health insurance, accommodation in a shelter, and a monthly stipend. However, in reality, fewer than half are actually accommodated, due to insufficient beds. Also, some shelters offer unhealthy living conditions and are located in remote areas. Asylum seekers who are not hosted in shelters receive a higher monetary allocation, but the amount is less than a third of the poverty threshold for a family of four. Adding to the difficulty, the aid is given through a magnetic card, which can be used to purchase food or hygiene products in shops, but does not allow for cash withdrawals or payment online.

Given these conditions, asylum seekers must work to ensure their survival. As in the U.S., asylum seekers cannot work lawfully during the first six months after arrival. After that, access to employment is much more restricted in France than the United States. Indeed, before they can get a work permit, asylum seekers in France must first find a job (which is very unlikely since employers can more easily hire people who already have permission to work), and then their future employer can request a work permit on their behalf. It takes up to two months to get the work permit, which is valid only for a specific job and has a maximum duration of six months (renewable). Due to these conditions, many asylum seekers become undocumented workers.

Finally, let us see what happens after a decision is made. Formally, people who receive asylum in France receive a 10-year renewable residence permit, and are entitled to the same social benefits as French citizens. But in practice, their integration is made difficult by the economic and social isolation they experienced during the asylum process. Also, most face significant delays--exceeding 300 days in 2022--to obtain their residence card and gain access to the labor market or housing. In France, the backlog occurs after the decision, and significantly hinders integration for newly-granted refugees.

If the application is rejected, the asylum seeker loses all benefits and must leave the country. Persons from countries designated “safe” by the French government can be immediately deported. Others are subject to a decision on removal, which can be appealed. However, each year, an estimated 50,000 rejected asylum seekers remain illegally in France. And according to European figures, only 21% of rejected asylum seekers return to their country of origin.

The two different systems--in the U.S. and France--lead to the same struggles for legal protection and survival. The human costs are incalculable for asylum seekers. Host communities too face significant costs. Since the protection rate is roughly the same in both countries, around 40% approval, it is difficult to say which system is more efficient, or rather, less harmful.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: