France’s tolerance problem

Sometimes, I have to pinch myself and rub my eyes to believe what I’m reading.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi are calling for the Schengen treaty – which regulates open borders and the free movement of people in Europe – to be revised. This comes after a diplomatic spat over the fate of immigrants from Tunisia who escaped the unrest earlier in the year, and who wound up in Italy. Italy provided them with temporary visas, which, effectively allowed the immigrants to travel and move freely around the EU.

That’s in theory, at least.

France actually blocked a train coming from Italy from crossing the border, citing reasons of “potential unrest”. The Tunisian migrants claimed that they were seeking to reunite with family members living in France, and have been barred from entering the country, in spite of their legal status. Italy and France wrote a joint letter to the senior EU leaderhip:

“The situation concerning migration in the Mediterranean could rapidly transform into a crisis that would undermine the trust that our compatriots have in the [principle] of freedom of travel within Schengen,” the letter says […] It is necessary to “examine the possibility to temporarily re-establish controls within [Schengen] borders in the case of exceptional difficulties.”

I find this infuriating. On the one hand Italy and France are actively engaged in supporting liberation forces in Libya, and have made grandiloquent statements about the need for people to enjoy freedom and the necessity for reform to take place in undemocratic countries. The ongoing unrest across North Africa has created massive human displacement and forced people to leave their homes, their countries. Once these people reach European shores, though, the story is different. All of a sudden, they are the scourge of the Earth and no country wants to take them in. How’s that for a double standard?


Ever since I moved to Canada from Paris a few years ago, I often get quizzical looks and questions like: “why would you leave such a beautiful/romantic/interesting city??” It’s always a bit difficult to answer this without sounding like a jerk. There were a number of factors that influenced my decision: first of all, having grown up and lived in Paris most of my life, I felt the urge to move some place new. I felt the old adage “the grass is greener” take hold of me, particularly once I had finished my masters degree. There simply aren’t many job opportunities, broadly speaking, in the field of international relations (whether it be working for an NGO, an international organization or other). But beyond these basic reasons, I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with France’s treatment of minorities.

In 2005, I was in grad school at Sciences Po when there were serious youth riots, and Paris was “burning.” These riots were the result of profound, chronic, protracted discontent among minority youth. In spite of the fact that people from all over the world – and in particular former French colonies – have been immigrating to France for decades, instead of seeing growing openness, the French are increasingly less tolerant. Perhaps there are polls and studies that show otherwise, but, I’m telling you, the trend is not a positive one. The discourse is becoming more and more openly hostile toward immigrant populations, in particular with regards to France’s Muslim minority.

The recent ban on the burqa is one example. That law was passed with 335 votes in favor, and one against (that’s right – just one, lone parliamentarian.) I understand their justification for the ban: that the burqa is a symbol of the subjugation of women, and that it is a direct contradiction of French republican, secular values. But I profoundly disagree with it, both because it’s an assault on individual freedom (to dress as you please), but mostly because it’s such a blatant “f*ck you” to French Muslims. The ban affects only about 2,000 women in France, and I’m sure there are other issues which insult our “republican” values more than the burqa: the growing problem of homelessness and unequal access to safe housing, youth unemployment, the lack of care for our elderly. These are genuine social issues that require attention. Instead, though, the government does things like ban the burqa, target a specific ethnic group for deportation (that was the Roma – or gypsies – last summer), creates some absurd entity called the “Ministry for Immigration, Integration and National Identity” (created by Sarkozy in 2007 – the “national identity” part of it was removed in 2010). The government policy on immigration is firmly focused on deporting as many “illegal” immigrants as possible: the Ministry of Immigration proudly touts its figures of tens of thousands of deportations every year.

Outside of the government though, in the media and among the general population, there is a latent discomfort with the way in which French society is evolving. Nearly 10% of the country’s population is Muslim, and demographics suggest that this number will continue to increase as Muslim families tend to have more children. This is actually true in many countries around Europe. The growth of visible minorities in France has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in discomfort and intolerance. In contrast with the American inner city/suburb dichotomy, France has a reverse culture: city centers are typically rich, and suburbs not. When waves of immigrant workers arrived in France in the 1960s, they were essentially parked in shoddy apartment complexes on the outskirts of the city, with little to no thought given to urban planning and social services. Over the years, these suburbs were left to degenerate and now house a large population of disenfranchised, marginalized individuals who live on the physical and social outskirts of society. If you’ve ever driven from Paris’ main airport, CDG, into the city, you know what I’m talking about.

It’s a terrible, sad situation, and it’s deeply entrenched. French elites have historically been very hermetic, but the lack of political representation of minorities is blatant. Token efforts to have more inclusive governance and leadership are failing. The extreme right, which has been a political force to reckon with in France for a long time, is experiencing a sort of “renaissance.” Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the Front National, recently compared public Muslim prayer to a form of occupation. The word “occupation” is an extremely loaded term in France – it is a reference to German occupation during the Second World War. There is a good chance that her party will win enough votes in the presidential election next year for her to be a second round contender (same thing happened in 2002, and Chirac was re-elected with 80% of the vote…) Xenophobia and racism have taken a strong hold on French society. It is no surprise that this completely disenfranchised segment of the population is angry and resentful, and it is no surprise that events like the 2005 riots take place.

It’s disheartening and depressing to live in a country where the discourse on immigration and minorities is so negative. Institutional discrimination and injustice have become a part of life in France. It’s so bad that, for a while, we almost had a system whereby people’s resumes would be submitted to potential employers anonymously. The reason? So that the potential employer wouldn’t throw a resume in the trash bin because someone’s name was Mohamed or Fatima. Such a band-aid solution: instead of actually trying to deal with discrimination, let’s all agree that we can’t go past our prejudices and make it harder for us to discriminate.

There is an urgent need to create a real space – political, social, physical – for greater understanding between cultures. French people whose parents are not from a foreign country need to accept that societies evolve, and that it is pointless to seek to insulate France from migration. It’s simply a fact of life, it will not go away, no matter how tough our laws are or how hard we make it for people to assimilate. And, perhaps this will be most difficult, we need to recognize the true value of immigration, and emphasize the (proven) benefits for the host as well as the sending country.

France is a wonderful country. There are so many reasons why I love my country, but I just cannot see myself living in a place with such a degree of growing hatred and intolerance. We are moving backwards. I realize that other countries are not perfect, and there are intolerant people everywhere. But I’ve seen France deteriorate on that particular front, and I find it heartbreaking.


For people who flee violence and conflict and seek refuge across borders, pain and suffering does not necessarily end once their destination is reached. According to IRIN, as many as 46,000 Somali refugees are living in Kenya with an “unclear legal status.” (The Refugee Consortium of Kenya puts this number around 100,000.) For all intents and purposes, a refugee with an “unclear legal status” translates into “illegal”:

“Urban refugees live largely without material assistance or legal protection, leaving them vulnerable to police arrest at any time, and face high levels of xenophobia from the local population,” Okoro [from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] said. “The challenges faced by urban refugees in Kenya falls within the broader issue of the ‘hidden’ urban humanitarian challenges.

“Confusion over the processing of legal status for urban refugees and fear of deportation is exposing more than 40,000 urban refugees to serious humanitarian challenges with significant protection issues,” she said. “Responding to protection issues for urban refugees is a challenge without a clearer and better plan for implementing legal status for urban refugees.”

“Illegal” refugees – as they are sometimes mistakenly called – cannot avail themselves of their legal rights as refugees, nor can they access educational or employment opportunities without risk of alerting the authorities. Another IRIN report from last week quotes the Kenyan commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of Immigration:

“The government has a duty to provide protection to refugees and this involves provision of shelter, food, health and medical care and education,” said Peter Kusimba, commissioner for refugee affairs at the Ministry of Immigration and Registration of Persons. “These, however, are only provided to refugees with legal immigrant status or are mandated by the UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] to be in the camps.

“It would, however, be difficult to provide services to unregistered urban refugees because they wouldn’t come out for fear of arrest but we encourage them to come and apply for legal immigrant status so that they receive these services like everybody else,” he added.

Yes, I’m sure that the process of applying for legal immigrant status is simple, straight-forward and focused on protecting individuals…No wonder so many refugees linger in legal limbo.

Blog Action Day 09: Climate Change: Paradise Lost

Boy am I late in the game here…It’s not even *really* October 15th anymore, but hey. In any case, I’m really happy to contribute to Blog Action Day 09 (BAD09). If you haven’t heard of it, BAD09 is a great, simple initiative from our friends over at Basically, it’s “an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day. Our aim is to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion.” BAD organizers emphasize that the first and last purpose of BAD is to create a discussion – clearly, a blog post (or 10,000) can’t be the tipping point on an issue like climate change, which is not only broad and complex, but also divisive and polarizing. It’s an honor to be a part of it, and I hope that this post will, at the very least, be thought provoking.

Few places in the world inspire awe like the beautiful atolls of the Indian and Pacific Ocean. Their startling blue waters and white sandy beaches have inspired artists and attracted tourists since modern transportation has made these little pieces of paradise accessible. However, climate change has made these typically low-lying, coral protected islands atolls — such as the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu or the Maldives — particularly vulnerable. Rising sea levels, storm surges and the increased acidification of ocean waters, which contributes to the loss of coral reefs, are already threatening the livelihoods of these islands’ inhabitants. According to the Intergovernemental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

  • Sea-level rise is expected to exacerbate inundation, storm surge, erosion and other coastal hazards, thus threatening vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities that support the livelihood of island communities
  • There is strong evidence that under most climate change scenarios, water resources in small islands are likely to be seriously compromised.

Studies from the University of Copenhagen (here and here) argue that island cultures have developed and refined coping mechanisms to handle variations in climate and habitat: storm surges, erosion and shifting sea levels are fundamental features of island life, and cultures have adapted to these realities. However, the current challenges posed by climate change patterns are so stark, that traditional coping strategies will likely not suffice:

Polynesian cultures on small islands in the Pacific have a long tradition for adapting to climate change and variability, as well as to changes in other factors, in order to maintain their culture and way of life. Current and future climate change constitutes, however, a qualitatively and quantitatively different set of challenges.

While there is still some degree of uncertainty as to exactly what the impact of current climate patterns will be on island atolls, there is a broad consensus that (i) these effects are caused by increased CO2 in the atmosphere, a lot of it attributable to human activity and, (ii) that there is a strong chance that these islands will become unsuitable for people to live on. In fact, it is the very existence of island atolls that is at stake.

(Watch: Impact of Climate Change in the Pacific from Oxfam Australia on Vimeo.)

To draw attention to the threat faced by low-lying islands, the Maldives government will be holding an underwater cabinet meeting on October 17:

The president of the Maldives is desperate for the world to know how seriously his government takes the threat of climate change and rising sea levels to the survival of his country. He wants his ministers to know as well.

To this end, Mohamed Nasheed has organised an underwater cabinet meeting and told all his ministers to get in training for the sub-aqua session. Six metres beneath the surface, the ministers will ratify a treaty calling on other countries to cut greenhouse emissions.


The Maldives, like other island atolls, may very well become uninhabitable by the end of the century. This raises a number of critical questions regarding the legal obligation of states to provide a territory to live on for its citizens. If entire island nations disappear, what then happens to its people, its culture? The Maldives government has been wrestling with this question, and is establising a sovereign wealth fund with revenues generated from tourism for the purchase of territory. President Nasheed said

Sri Lanka and India were targets because they had similar cultures, cuisines and climates. Australia was also being considered because of the amount of unoccupied land available.”We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades.”

The Maldives highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level.
The Maldives highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level.

In the Pacific, the Carteret Islands have become the poster child for the issue of climate related migration flows. The Carteret Islanders, a matrilineal community living on an island chain 50 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea, have become the world’s first “climate refugees”. The government of Papua New Guinea has begun the evacuation, scheduled until 2020, of some 3,000 islanders.

While predictions vary as to the precise number of people around the world who will be forcibly displaced by climate related events, a commonly accepted figure is that an estimated 200-250 million people will have to migrate by 2050 as a result of climate change. According to Oxfam, 75 million of these people are living in poor islands and low-lying areas of the Pacific. And, as the evacuation of the Carteret Islands is a clear demonstration of, there is an urgent need to create legal safeguards for “climate refugees”.

The UNHCR estimates that there are 42 million displaced people in the world, 25 million of which are receiving assistance or protection from the agency. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), which constitute a majority of the displaced (26 of 42 million) do not, in fact, fall under the mandate of the UNHCR de facto – the agency regroups certain IDPs, stateless persons and other special cases that do not fall under its strict, narrow mandate under the umbrella of “persons of concern.”

Migration and asylum-seeking due to climate change will likely be on the increase in the coming years, however, the UNHCR (or any other international organization, for that matter) does not have a mandate to protect or assist “climate refugees”. Legal and funding constraints mean that dealing with “climate refugees” will most likely not be a core UNHCR task.  Not only that, but there is currently a dearth of legislation (both international and national) that would guarantee the rights of people displaced by climate change. Rajesh Chhabara, writing for Climate Change Corp, explains:

Sources at UNHCR, who want to remain anonymous, add that UNHCR is not equipped or designed to handle hundreds of millions of refugees from climate change. It already finds its resources stressed in handling the 14.3 million political refugees in the world.

Clarifying UNHCR’s position, Yoichiro Tsuchida, UNHCR Senior Advisor on Climate Change, explains that the case for environment refugees is too complicated and disparate to fit within the current refugee framework. Justifying international migration due to natural disasters is difficult, as is the task of attributing environmental phenomena directly to climate change. “While environmental factors can contribute to prompting cross-border movements, they are not grounds, in and of themselves, for the grant of refugee status under international refugee law,” she says.

Tsuchida claims that “the broader international human rights regime” should serve as the basis for guiding the responsibility of states towards people who are in need of international protection but who do not qualify for refugee status.

Elements of a response are being developed – Australia and New Zealand, whose small neighbors are sinking, are beginning to shape policy responses. New Zealand, for example, has a Pacific Access Category for migrants hailing from Pacific islands, a fast track, simplified immigration option. The Australian Labour Party published a policy paper in 2006, “Our Drowning Neighbours“, which outlines steps for Australia to take to assist Pacific islands. The paper includes recommendations regarding what sort of assistance Australia should provide Pacific islands to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as its responsibility as a leading voice for the advocacy of strong action internationally and locally to address climate change.

However, while these initiatives are necessary, they only begin to scratch the surface of the problem. Some experts suggest that policy makers need to construe the inevitable migration flows resulting from climate change as an opportunity rather than a burden. Indeed, while displaced people and migrants already suffer disproportionately from discrimination and difficulties in integration, it is critical for policy makers and governments to prepare us for increased and more complex migration flows. A paper prepared for the Expert Group Meeting on Population Dynamics and Climate Change in June 2009 argues:

There is growing evidence suggesting that mobility, in conjunction with income diversification, is an important strategy to reduce vulnerability to environmental and non-environmental risks – including economic shocks and social marginalisation. In many cases, mobility not only increases resilience but also enables individuals and households to accumulate assets. As such, it will probably play an increasingly crucial role in adaptation to climate change. Policies that support and accommodate mobility and migration are important for both adaptation and the achievement of broader development goals.

In addition to questions related to the development of an appropriate framework for managing migration due to climate change, the consequences of the impending disaster facing islanders is well summarized by Tarita Holm, an analyst with the Palauan Ministry of Resources and Development. Of the displacement and relocation of islanders, she says: “It is about much more than just finding food and shelter,” said  “It is about your identity.”

Addressing climate change is more than just figuring out how and when a carbon tax is appropriate, or whether coal is clean or not. It will force us to grapple with very difficult and fundamental questions about the preservation of culture and civilizations.

Defining "refugees"

I’d like to preface this post by reminding you what the global “refugee context” is: 

I’ve mentioned before, in some posts here, how the legal definition of “refugee” has become obsolete in the 21st century. While on paper, the definition seems quite broad, it fails to include dozens of millions of displaced people, who, as a result, see their most fundamental human rights violated. There are 16 million refugees in the world today who fall under the mandate of the UNHCR or the UNRWA (4.6 million Palestinian refugees, out of the 16 million fall under the latter’s jurisdiction). In addition to these already staggering numbers, there are an estimated 51 million displaced people who do not fall under any international legal mandate. 51 million. And that is not taking into account the vast numbers of people who flee their homelands but are never able to register as a refugee or an asylum seeker, for reasons as varied as inability to read, write and understand the process involved or too much psychological trauma to handle complicated, inefficient bureaucratic processes. It’s most likely impossible to know exactly how many people fall into the latter category – but I would say there are easily a few million displaced people who have not been taken into account by the UNHCR statistics. 
Anyway, this leads me up to the story of the day, that of Pape Mbaye, a gay Senegalese man who was granted refugee status in the US on the basis of his facing persecution due to his sexual orientation. The article (unfortunately) barely touches upon the novelty of this type of refugee case, merely noting that only “a handful” of similar cases arose in the past, and is focused on the plight of homosexuals in West Africa (as far as my experience goes, I haven’t encountered a single West African who is tolerant of homosexuality…. sadly).
It is nonetheless noteworthy that Mbaye was able to receive refugee status on those grounds – and given that his well-being was genuinely endangered by conservative zealotry, I think it’s fantastic that the US granted him refugee status. However, for every Mbaye, there are 100,000 (or more) individuals who yearn to live in a different country, far away from the misery, oppression and persecution that pervades their daily lives. What of them? What of the hundreds of Africans who end up ship wrecked on the coasts of the small southern European island of Malta? Why must they languish endlessly in precarious conditions? What of the thousands of Liberian refugees in Ghana who cannot avail themselves of the inadequate amount of assistance that the UNHCR is able to provide them with? 
The fight for the rights of those who suffer is far from over….