France's welcome mat for refugees grows tattered
France has long taken pride in the welcome it offers to the world's political exiles. But with more than 2 million Frenchmen unemployed, the welcome mat is becoming increasingly threadbare.Skip to next paragraph
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Every day a stream of refugees seeks assistance at the Paris office of France Terre d'Asile, a private organization that in better economic times assumed much of the burden of providing exiles with housing and work.
Lately, the organization's harried caseworkers have only one answer for applicants: ''We have no jobs. We have no lodging.''
The refugees in the office's dark waiting room are among the thousands each year who take advantage of France's policy of providing sanctuary to victims of political and racial persecution.
The largest number - 110,000 - have come from Indochina. Many have fled from such countries as Poland, Chile, Turkey, and Ethiopia, as well as countries whose conflicts are less well known. For example, in the last year more than 10, 000 Tamils from Sri Lanka have been granted asylum because they face racial discrimination in their homeland.
Even in normal times, life can be difficult for new exiles in Paris. But refugee officials say that it has become much worse in the last two years because of France's economic recession. The refugees at France Terre d'Asile testified to the hardships they face.
Tam, a Cambodian in his mid-20s, spoke sadly of Parisian life. It is not easy for him to enjoy this city of cafes, boutiques, and museums. After surviving five years of forced labor under the Pol Pot regime and watching most of his family die, he came to Paris to join a brother. Yet in half a year, he has found only one month's work, even though he is fluent in French.
Across the room, two Tamils described an even more difficult situation. They fled from Sri Lanka to Spain and then paid to be smuggled across the Pyrenees into France, where they received asylum. Unable to speak French, they have little hope of finding jobs. The $145 they receive from the government each month is barely enough to live on.
Some refugee officials said that because of unemployment, increasingly large numbers of refugees are depending on the government for long-term assistance.
One official of the Service Sociale d'Aide aux Emigrants, the government agency that assists refugees, said that because of this problem, he believed France's liberal refugee policy ''cannot continue in the same way.''
Indeed, government and private agency officials point to a shift in policy toward Indochinese refugees as a sign that the government may have decided to slow down refugee admissions.
In July 1981, President Francois Mitterrand announced that quotas for Indochinese admissions would be doubled to 1,000 a month. Along with other announced changes in policy affecting the Indochinese, it was expected that 18, 000 refugees would be allowed into France by July 1982.
In fact, only 13,000 have been admitted. French Foreign Ministry officials attribute the slowdown to the unemployment problem that refugees are facing and say that all 18,000 eventually would come to France.
But other refugee specialists see the slowdown as a significant tempering of ideals, even though Indochinese admissions still increased overall. They say they expect this shift to be a precursor to eventual cutbacks in Indochinese immigration.
Despite the talk of specific cutbacks, French government officials insist firmly that the basic policy of offering asylum to political exiles will remain unchanged.
It is a matter of great pride that France is often the country of last resort for refugees, particularly at a time when other countries are closing their borders.
Both government and private refugee officials spoke critically of Reagan administration and congressional efforts to reduce refugee admissions into the United States.
Many said they believe that France's economic problems are more severe than those of the United States and that the American government is overreacting in restricting the refugee flow.