PARIS — A young man climbs the stairs and enters the waiting room: he’s wearing a leather jacket, with his long hair smoothed back into a ponytail. His eyes are bright green, and they jot about the room. He smiles a lot, as if to excuse his presence here.
Even all the way in Damascus, people have heard of office 112E, 6 Place Gambetta in Paris. On the first floor, there is a waiting room with steel chairs lining the walls. Its door is left ajar. A white sheet of paper has been taped up as a makeshift sign, and the letters on it have been drawn multiple times with pencil. They read, in Arabic and in English: Syria.
Ami is an army deserter. His name is not really Ami; he distrusts journalists very much. He has been living in Paris for a couple of months now, and just last week, he received his political refugee status. “But I’m not a rebel,” Ami insists. Like many Syrian refugees in France, he hadn’t meant to come here. He was planning on going to the U.K. after he fled the army, but he was caught by border control at the Parisian Gare du Nord, just as he was about to board the London-bound train. He’s 22 and doesn’t know what he’s going to do with his life.
Like the others sitting in the waiting room, he has come to see Sabreen Al-Rassace, who manages the walk-in office set up for Syrian refugees here in one of Paris’ municipal buildings. Al-Rassace is an NGO worker who guides asylum-seekers along the labyrinthine administrative process of obtaining refugee status in France. It’s one of the few places in the country where you don’t need an appointment. Today, she has already met with Rula, a Christian woman who fled Islamist rebels in Maaloula, her village in Syria. Rula wanted to know how she could help her family get out. There’s not much she can do, and Rula will be going back to Syria.
In September, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, announced that the number of Syrians that had fled the country since the beginning of the conflict in 2011 had topped two million. The agency called on Western states to create exceptional humanitarian aid programs to respond to the growing tide of refugees, which have also left Syria’s border regions overwhelmed. For its part, the United States responded to UNHCR by agreeing to allow 2,000 Syrians onto its soil, a major shift compared to the 90 or so refugees it accepted since the conflict broke out. Protection will be granted over the next four months.
The European Union has until now failed to draw up a common program for dealing with Syrians seeking refuge at its door. In 2012, Europe took in 25,000 Syrian refugees. In response to UNHCR’s call, Germany agreed to allow an additional 5,000 asylum-seekers into the country, while Austria pledged to welcome an additional 500 refugees, doubling its quota. The United Kingdom offered more aid without offering more visas, and France remained silent.
When pressed, the French government claimed its asylum system was already “saturated.” This year, 700 Syrians have sought asylum in the country. Meanwhile, just next door, Germany took in ten times that number in 2012.
France is near the bottom rung of the European ladder in terms of welcoming Syrian refugees. “When people ask, I tell them: go to Sweden. Go to Scandinavia. France is one of the worst places you can come to,” Al-Rassace says. The procedure in France is also notoriously long. Asylum-seekers may occasionally have to wait up to six months or a year to receive a response from immigration.
Even after receiving papers, they continue to face considerable challenges. “They are left entirely on their own again,” Al-Rassace explains. “The language barrier continues, and the social rights related to their new status are difficult to really access. Some people are entirely desperate. It’s not just because they have been granted papers that they systematically are able to find accommodation or financial resources.”
French president François Hollande has been supportive of solving the humanitarian crisis with humanitarian bombs. In the wake of chemical attacks that killed hundreds of civilians on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, Hollande called for strong punitive measures. And even after the United Kingdom backtracked on military action, Hollande continued to back the United States’ call for strikes by stating, “France will be part of it. France is ready.”
Pressured by refugee rights NGOs to respond to UNHCR’s call, Hollande instead defended his position on humanitarian intervention. “It would be a paradox to let [the Syrian government] do as they please while having to host more and more refugees,” he said. Needless to say, it is also a paradox to call for action and yet remain inactive when faced with the misery of those fleeing the crisis one has been called on to resolve.
The U.S.-Russian deal reached in Geneva and backed by the UN Security Council does not include military action. As the United States and Russia patch things up in the Security Council, and the military option fades nearly as quickly as it flared up, it is clear that the ‘humanitarian’ part of ‘humanitarian intervention’ was never what gave it urgency in the first place.
As Chris Bickerton, international relations professor at Cambridge University points out, “when people talk about humanitarian intervention, they think it’s about humanitarian conditions. The prompt is humanitarian conditions, but the deciding factor comes when states feel like they have to prove things to each other.”
In other words, Hollande was suffering a slight case of FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. According to the French daily Le Monde, Syria would have been the fifth military operation France launches since 2001. French ambitions to remain a “Great Power” on the world stage have been indulged by its involvement in Libya under the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as Hollande’s own North African intervention in Mali this year. In January 2013, Hollande launched Opération Serval, sending in 3,000 French troops to regain control over Islamist-held northern Mali. The pullout date, initially scheduled for the end of 2013, has been postponed an additional two months and some French troops are set to remain on the ground indefinitely.
France also has significant historical ties with Syria, as it was under a French colonial mandate until the end of the Second World War. The French oil company Total still had a highly lucrative presence in the area until its withdrawal in 2011. And early that same year, France actively recognized the Syrian opposition and began cultivating a partnership to prepare for a post-Assad Syria.
When British Prime Minister David Cameron and Obama both began to waver in their determination for military action, Hollande was described by the French national weekly Le Canard Enchaîné as “a kid whose buddies have pushed him forward to join a fight and now that he’s there, do not follow him.” Today, along with the others in the international community, Hollande is more like the boy who called wolf. And as Bickerton points out, “Just because intervention is off the agenda doesn’t mean that humanitarian conditions in Syria are any better.”