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As Macron looks to control migration, line between economic migrants, refugees blurs

The French president is under fire at home for adopting an immigration policy that critics say shirks the human rights he has espoused. But implementation of that policy may be difficult, as once-distinct definitions of migrant increasingly overlap.

Christophe Ena/AP
French policemen checked papers in Chamant, north of Paris, in December 2017. Such checks are part of wider efforts by President Emmanuel Macron's government to control illegal migration.

French President Emmanuel Macron came into office promising to make France the “new center of the humanist project.” It’s an oft-repeated theme seen as a repudiation of the far right at home and of leaders in Europe and across the Atlantic who have scored points by rallying for closed borders and railing against immigration.

“France has always been the country of enlightenment, not darkness,” he told anti-immigrant rival Marine Le Pen in their final campaign debate. Then in his acceptance speech outside the Louvre museum, he spoke of a global expectation now for France to “defend the spirit of the Enlightenment that is threatened in so many places.”

Except now Mr. Macron himself is under fire for betraying those ideals – as his government plans to write a new law to more speedily distinguish between economic migrants, whom they want to deport, and those legally in need of refuge.

His supporters say he is just operating out of political realism. Foes say his lofty rhetoric of France as the birthplace of droits de l’homme (human rights) doesn’t match the crackdown on the ground. But underlying it all is a larger global tension, as the lines between economic migration and crisis-driven migration blur – and the push factors, like abject poverty and drought, coincide with war and persecution. Many question whether the United Nations’ definition of a refugee should be expanded to reflect the reality of crisis today.

“It is a broader discussion being had at the international level,” says Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe in Brussels, as it is more “difficult in humanitarian terms to distinguish between the acuteness of need some people are experiencing… It is much more of a continuum than it was before.”

Benoit Tessier/AP
French President Emmanuel Macron poses with Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchard before a meeting in Calais, northern France, on Jan.16. Mr. Macron traveled to the epicenter of France's migrant crisis, the northern port of Calais, to lay out a 'humane and tough' immigration policy that involved better behavior by security forces and closer cooperation with Britain.

Humanism vs. realism

In France, Macron’s government has said that the most humanitarian path forward is to make the asylum system more efficient. But that means a harder line for undocumented immigrants. He echoes the oft-repeated statement of Michel Rocard, a Socialist prime minister from 1988 to 1991, who crossed an ideological divide when he said, “France cannot welcome all the misery in the world.”

Among the most controversial moves by the government was a circular released in December allowing authorities to conduct identity checks in emergency shelters. Leading Catholic and Protestant organizations penned an open letter condemning the move. “At its heart it’s a hostile measure, a mistrust of people,” says Bruno Magniny, director of a welcome center for charity Secours Catholique, one of the letter’s signatories.

Even some of Macron’s former allies have spoken out. In another open letter in Le Monde this month, a former top advisor, Jean Pisani-Ferry, along with unions and intellectuals, criticized Macron’s policy as one that “contradicts the humanism you are advocating.”

A magazine cover this month sums up the dissent with a mug shot of Macron behind barbed wire, provocatively declaring: “Welcome to the country of human rights.”

Alain Minc, a former mentor of Macron, says his immigration policy fits into Macron’s ethos as a president neither on the right nor left. “I think the question about immigration is theoretically very simple,” he says. “We should be as open as necessary vis-à-vis the political refugees and war refugees but not vis-à-vis migrants coming from what … are called ‘safe countries.’ ”

In fact what Macron is proposing is nowhere near as radical as policies floated by President Trump in the United States. It is in line with mainstream policy in Europe, which aims to balance welcome for those truly in need of it and a functional border policy, including national security. Germany’s “welcome” of refugees at the peak of flows in 2015 was accompanied by a similar bifurcation of the system to better distinguish between two sets of migrants.

A migration continuum?

But Catherine de Wenden, a political scientist in Paris who specializes in migration, says that a crackdown on economic migration is increasingly meaningless. “We have to differentiate because they have different legal statuses, but the profiles are very close now,” she says. “In some countries there is a mix of political crises and economic crises.”

Bob Edme/AP
An activist comforts a crying migrants from Sudan at the Bayonne train station, southwestern France, in December 2017. These migrants have been housed for several weeks by local aid organizations. Migrants' papers will be checked in a retention center in Pau, southwestern France, before French authorities decide whether to expel them.

Although Macron’s government has said it has increased deportations of undocumented migrants, Ms. de Wenden says it remains a difficult task once they are here, even with a harsher crackdown. She estimates that only 5 percent are eventually sent back. Ms. Collett adds that in Europe, many governments who don’t grant asylum still implicitly recognize that it is difficult to return certain migrants – like 19-year-olds from Afghanistan, for example – back home, which leaves them in a legal limbo.

At the orientation center run by Secours Catholique in the northeast corner of Paris, migrants sip coffee under red and white snowflake decorations. Children play with donated toys in a corner. Ibrahim, who came from Ivory Coast in 2016 and is awaiting his asylum claim to be processed, says migrants still believe in France as a country of droits de l’homme, but the situation on the ground is sobering. “We are escaping a difficult situation to come to live out another difficult situation,” he says.

Mr. Magniny, the director of this center, says he believes Macron is following public opinion in France instead of setting an example. Magniny calls Macron’s tougher policies a “historic error” in a changing world where migration is a reality.

“The fear of the migrant is real, it exists. But it is an irrational fear, a fear of the future,” he says. By creating a climate of crackdown, Magniny says, Macron is only adding to a climate of fear of others. “And you don’t prepare for the future cultivating fear in people,” he says.

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