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Sleeping in cockroach-infested rooms, or braving the winter cold on the street, life has not been easy for Georgians seeking asylum in France.
Battered, dusty toys and an old children’s bicycle lie on the pavement in front of a green tent.
This is the new home of Mamuka, Sopo, and their seven-year-old son Lado (not their real names). They’ve come here to Montpellier, France looking for a better life.
Montpellier is one of many cities across the country where Georgian refugees arrive. Last winter, new families from Georgia arrived in the city almost every day.
Because of the large influx of people, there was not enough space to house everyone. The lucky ones were temporarily placed in hostels, while others had to sleep rough, living in tents by the side of the road, sometimes for months on end.
Lado does not go to school and spends all day playing in the street. For now it is warm, and the temperature goes as high as 19°C during the day, but at night it can drop as low as 2°C.
Mamuka hesitantly answers the question of why he brought his family to Montpellier.
‘It’s better here’, he tells OC Media, adding after a moment’s hesitation: ‘If only they gave us housing’.
Instead of a mattress, the family sleeps on several layers of blankets. Social services and sympathetic donors gave them other necessities, including food and a broken refrigerator — the family stores non-perishable food and canned goods inside.
The second day the family met with OC Media, Lado has a fever.
‘He caught a cold’, his father says.
‘Or contracted it from someone’, chimes in their neighbour from the next tent over.
Disheartened by her son’s sudden illness, Sopo is unwilling to talk, simply repeating one phrase like a mantra: ‘We’ve been living here for 43 days… 43 days’.
But still, the family does not want to return to Georgia.
‘We just have to live through all this. We have just arrived, we understand that difficulties are inevitable. But it doesn’t mean that we must immediately run away’, Mamuka says.
Yes, living in the street is difficult’, he adds. ‘I especially feel sorry for the child. He does not understand, he’s crying and wants to go home, wants to sleep in a bed. We also want this.’
A harsh welcome
France is one of the least friendly countries for asylum seekers in Western Europe.
La Cimade, a non-governmental organisation helping migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in France, reported that while France has less than a quarter of the asylum seekers on its territory than Germany (364,000), it has deported nearly as many (85,000).
And still, thousands come.
Several tents are installed opposite the main entrance to the PADA (Reception Platform for Asylum seekers) building in Montpellier — an organisation that registers asylum seekers.
Free breakfasts are available at PADA every day except on weekends. Lunches and dinners are distributed by several charities in the city, but people need to use public transportation in order to reach them.
For those who don’t have a home, PADA provides access to a toilet and a shower.
According to Marie Paule Cordonnier, the head of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples (MRAP), a French anti-racism NGO, in the beginning, asylum seekers go to PADA and get assigned for an admission date at the local administration, where officials create an application file and hand out papers certifying their asylum status.
‘After that, they start looking for housing for the applicant. Priority is given to single mothers, women with a husband are not considered vulnerable’, Cordonnier told OC Media, though, she added these days, times are tough. ‘We have lots of people from different countries, and there is no room left.’
A person has no rights to social benefits in France, Cordonnier said, until they obtain a certificate that officially designates them as an asylum seeker. However, even without this status, immigrants can receive emergency assistance for free and enrol their child in school or kindergarten.
‘No one knows your name’
‘When you decide to apply for asylum, you must clearly understand why you are doing this’, Natia (not her real name), a 37-year-old asylum seeker told OC Media. ‘Sometimes families break up; they cannot stand or endure this.’
She said that she came to France because she really wanted to give her 5-year-old son a European education.
Natia and her son came to Montpellier last summer from Tbilisi. She said that she divorced her husband four years ago, and that while she asked her mother to come with them, she did not; she was afraid of change.
‘You need to understand that your social status here will plummet. Everyone knew you at home, loved you, you had a clean bed and a delicious lunch. Here, you are nobody and no one knows your name’, Natia said.
Natia believes she was one of the lucky ones. Unlike others, she and her son were not forced to live in a tent. Instead, they were settled in a hotel immediately after their arrival. The room they stayed in was infested with bugs, cockroaches, and spiders, but it was better than staying outside in the cold.
‘In winter, I walked here, and children sat in tents, clung to each other playing with a phone. In winter, cold, it was not snowing, but sometimes it was raining, and they were outside. Immediately I began to thank God that I didn’t live a day in a tent. I have a room, more or less, and my child goes to school, and is not freezing in the street.’
‘I have liver cancer, tumours in the spine and hips. I came here because I want to live a little longer. Georgia doesn’t have the necessary equipment to treat me, there is none of the needed medical equipment, there is no money, and treatment is expensive’, 43-year-old Avtandil Sinauridze, another Georgian asylum seeker, told OC Media.
According to Georgia’s Ministry of Health, in the past year, the government has funded a total of 652 treatments abroad, but for cancer patients — waiting for funding is not always the best option.
Avtandil came to Montpellier from Kutaisi with his brother in early March; he has no plans to return to Georgia. He is suffering from stage 3 cancer and is restricted to a wheelchair as a result.
‘We arrived here on 5 March. We thought we would get housing and immediately start treatment. But there is no housing and we have lived in a tent since then. We can’t begin treatment without insurance. Insurance will come only in a month’, Sinauridze says.
‘There is no reason to ask for asylum’
In January, Pascal Meunier, the French Ambassador to Georgia, claimed that the number of asylum seekers in France is increasing every month. According to him, 200 people per year applied for refugee status in Europe before the establishment of a visa-free regime for Georgian citizens.
‘An average of 600 people per month applied after visa liberalisation the year before last, and last year this number reached 1,000, according to December data’, Meunier said.
According to the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, of which France is a signatory, a person, ‘who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’ must be considered a refugee and treated accordingly.
To the criteria of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion as the reason for persecution, French law also adds gender and sexual orientation as factors to consider.
Meunier said that Georgia was recognised as ‘safe’ in several European countries, including France, and this means that there should be no reason to seek asylum in Europe for Georgian citizens.
In January, following this decision, Germany denied the refugee status of, and expelled, 62 Georgian citizens.
Stemming the flow
On 16 April, the Parliament of Georgia adopted amendments to the Criminal Code to try to stem the amount of false asylum claims.
‘Providing false information about violations of human rights and freedoms of a Georgian citizen to help them obtain asylum in a foreign state in exchange for financial or other material benefits [will be punishable by law]’, the Georgian Ministry for Foreign Affairs told OC Media in a statement.
On 18 April 2018, parliament adopted a draft law restricting the procedure for changing surnames.
‘The main idea of introducing new, stricter regulations was to prohibit people from changing their surnames in order to re-enter the Schengen zone and re-apply for asylum after refusal, which, apparently, used to be common practice’, the ministry told OC Media.
‘Georgia fully shares the concerns of EU states regarding the increased number of asylum seekers, and spares no efforts to overcome difficulties’, they said.
The ministry also wrote that after visa liberalisation between Georgia and the EU, they launched an information campaign to combat the ‘abuse of visa-free regulations’.
A cornerstone of the campaign, according to the ministry, is the launch of the Schengen/EU mobile application, from which Georgian citizens can get information about visa-free entry rules and calculate the number of days they have left before being legally required to exit the Schengen area.
Where are they now?
Since OC Media first spoke to them, there have been some significant changes in the lives of Georgian asylum seekers in Montpellier, including the people OC Media interviewed for this article.
In late June, the Montpellier City Hall dismantled the tent city, and its residents were given accommodation in a warehouse in a different part of the city.
Five Georgiran families who had spent up to a year in Montpellier with the hopes of receiving asylum status were deported to Georgia, several other families are still awaiting deportation.
Shortly after OC Media spoke with him, Avtandil Sinauridze was able to move out of his tent and received accommodation in a hotel.
Mamuka and Sopo were refused refugee status. They appealed the ruling but lost.
They have now moved to another European country, which they did not wish to disclose. They said they became ‘tired’ of living in France.
Natia and her son have since received refugee status and moved to Lyon.