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At French Outpost in African Migrant Hub, Asylum for a Select Few

Bénédicte Jeannerod, who heads the French office of Human Rights Watch, was less a critic of the program itself than of its scale. “I’ve told Pascal Brice that as long as it works, make it bigger,” he said.

But the potential difficulties of making the program larger were evident in a day of interviews at the sweltering United Nations center in Niamey.

One recent Saturday night, 136 Eritreans and Somalis were flown to Niamey by the United Nations, all potential candidates for asylum interviews with the French.

The dozens of asylum seekers already there waited pensively, looking resigned as they sat on benches, betraying no sign of the import of what the French deputy chief of the mission had to offer.

“If you are chosen, you will soon be in France,” Ms. Bergier-Diallo told them, pronouncing the words slowly and deliberately. “And we are delighted.”

Indeed, if the refugees pass muster, the rewards are enormous: a free plane ticket to France, free housing, hassle-free residence papers and free French lessons.

The French agents, stiff and formal in their questioning that could last well over an hour, inquired relentlessly about the refugees’ family ties, uninterested in establishing the narrative of their escape and suffering.

Photo

A refugee who escaped from Libya showed scars from cigarettes on her body and on her 2-year-old child. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

The idea was to “establish the family context,” in an effort to confirm the authenticity of the refugees’ origins, said one French official, Lucie.

(Sensitive to security, the French authorities asked that the last names of their agents and those of the refugees not be published).

Shewit, a diminutive, bespectacled 26-year-old Eritrean woman, was asked whether she ever phoned her family, and if so what they talked about.

“Only about my health,” Shewit said. “I never tell them where I am.”

Mariam, 27, told the French agent she had been raped and ostracized in her village, and feared going back because “the people who raped me are still there.”

“They could rape me again,” said Mariam, an illiterate animal herder from Somaliland.

Even if she finds safety in France, integrating her into society will be a difficult challenge. Mariam had never attended any school and looked bewildered when the French agent told her to remove her head scarf.

Wearing the scarf “is not possible in the French administration, or in schools,” Emoline, the agent, said gently to Mariam in English, through an interpreter.

Then there was Welella, an 18-year-old Eritrean girl who, before being rescued from neighboring Libya, had spent time in a refugee camp in Sudan, where she endured what she simply called “punishments.”

Source: NYT > World

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