And if France were to truly « play its part » in receiving refugees ?

François Héran, demographer

Following the invasion of Ukraine by the russian army, president Macron took the floor as president of the council of the european union to pledge that each country, including France, would « play its part » in welcoming refugees. « We will do it » he added « as europeans, in a coordinated, responsible, and cohesive manner ». 

Numbers of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers submit­ting a first asylum appli­ca­tion in Germany, France and Poland, 2014–2020



Source : Eurostat
As Germany has a popu­la­tion of 83 million and France 67 million, for the sake of accu­racy, the responses of the two coun­tries should be compared in rela­tion to their respec­tive popu­la­tion sizes. This would mean redu­cing the numbers recorded in Germany by around 20%. Even by doing so, the diffe­rence would remain very large.
The numbers recorded in Poland are so small that they are not visible above the axis line.
France is more similar to Poland than to Germany.

Recep­tion of Syrian refu­gees : France takes a back seat

What does it really mean to “play one’s part” in recei­ving refu­gees ? Does it mean recei­ving the modest quotas that France habi­tually accepts at each “refugee crisis”? Or does it imply that respon­si­bi­lity should be equi­tably shared across Europe, accor­ding to the popu­la­tion size and economic weight of each country ? Depen­ding on which option is chosen, the numbers involved are of very different magni­tudes. Yet, neither the poli­tical class nor public opinion in our country appear to be truly aware of the impli­ca­tions of each option.

Let us begin with the first option. Before the war, Syria had a popu­la­tion of 22 million. How many Syrian asylum seekers did France take in between 2014 and 2020 ? Around 25,200 accor­ding to Euro­stat data (graph below). This is a paltry figure by compa­rison with Germany, which regis­tered 633,100 asylum appli­ca­tions by Syrians over the same period, 25 times more than France. Yet accor­ding to the United Nations High Commis­sion for Refu­gees (UNHCR), by the spring of 2022, a total of 6.8 million Syrians had been forced to flee their country (and a similar number were inter­nally displaced). Most have stayed in neigh­bou­ring coun­tries : Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Only 17% (1,140,220 people) have been able to request asylum in a country of the Euro­pean Union, of whom 55.5% in Germany and just 2.2% in France. The arith­metic is simple : 2.2% of of the 17% of Syrians in the EU repre­sents a total of less than 0.4% of all Syrian refu­gees (25,200 out of 6.8 million). This is hardly the “tsunami” denounced by certain poli­tical parties.

Of course, this may partly reflect the prefe­rences of the indi­vi­duals concerned. They may see Germany as a more attrac­tive country than France because it is more pros­pe­rous and more favou­rably disposed towards them. But this cannot explain the sheer scale of the diffe­rence between the two coun­tries. The French autho­ri­ties are wont to evoke the welcome extended to fleeing Afghans. True, between 2014 and 2020, 8% of asylum appli­ca­tions by Afghans in the EU were regis­tered in France, but this share is still well below that of the Germany, which accounted for 36% of the total (49,200 requests regis­tered, versus 213,000)

Recei­ving capa­city : struc­tural or political ?

When talking about a country’s recei­ving capa­city, it is impor­tant to distin­guish between its struc­tural capa­city – its popu­la­tion, wealth or geogra­phical size – and its poli­ti­cally constructed capa­city, such as the resources devoted to appli­ca­tion proces­sing, provi­sion of accom­mo­da­tion, migra­tion policy in general, labour market orga­ni­za­tion, the regime gover­ning employ­ment of foreign workers, or the exter­na­li­za­tion of border controls. France accounts for 15% of the EU popu­la­tion and 17% of its GDP (link in french). If we accept that a country should receive a number of refu­gees in Europe in propor­tion to its struc­tural capa­ci­ties, France is clearly very far from regis­te­ring an equi­table quota of Syrian asylum appli­ca­tions, which, based on this crite­rion, would have totalled between 170,000 and 200,000 and not a mere 25,000.

Ukrai­nian refu­gees in France : room for improvement

What is the current situa­tion with respect to Ukraine ? Before the war, the country had a popu­la­tion of 44 million, twice that of Syria. Accor­ding to the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, France was ready to receive 100,000 refu­gees “or more” (state­ment of 14 March 2022 (link in french)). Two months later, the French Office for Inte­gra­tion and Immi­gra­tion (OFII) announced that around 80,000 asylum seeker allo­wances (ADA) had been granted in record time to Ukrai­nian refu­gees (link in french). The autho­ri­ties certainly made a huge effort, along­side asso­cia­tions and volun­teers working on the ground. But can we truly say, at the Euro­pean level, that France is “playing its part” in the recep­tion of Ukrai­nian refugees ?

As in Syria, Ukraine’s neigh­bours are on the front line. Accor­ding to recent UNHCR data, (25 May 2022), of the 6.8 million Ukrai­nians (mainly women and chil­dren) who fled the country between the end of February and mid-May, more than half took refuge in neigh­bou­ring coun­tries. Over the same period, 2,230,000 people entered or returned to Ukraine. The UNHCR esti­mates that 2.9 million people have sought refuge farther afield. These statis­tics, along­side France’s weight in the geogra­phical area of Europe not borde­ring Ukraine, i.e. 13.8% of the popu­la­tion and 15.1% of GDP, can be used as a basis for calcu­la­tion. If France applied a prin­ciple of equi­table and cohe­sive distri­bu­tion, it would receive a share of Ukrai­nians in propor­tion to its demo­gra­phic and economic weight in this area, i.e. a total of 400,000 to 440,000 people, well above the number anti­ci­pated by the Minister of the Interior.

A temp­ta­tion to carry on as before by trans­fer­ring respon­si­bi­lity to the diasporas

One may argue that another factor must also be consi­dered, that of the size of the Ukrai­nian diaspora in each country liable to attract new arri­vals. In 2020, the largest Ukrai­nian commu­ni­ties outside neigh­bou­ring coun­tries were in Italy (240,000), in the Czech Repu­blic (163,000), in Germany (135,000) and in Spain (107,000). There were fewer than 40,000 in all other coun­tries, and just 20,300 in France accor­ding to INSEE statis­tics. While perhaps unde­res­ti­mated, these number draw a clearly diffe­ren­tiated map of “Ukrai­nian Europe”. Can we satisfy ourselves with an arran­ge­ment whereby Ukrai­nian refu­gees are received across Europe in propor­tion to the size of their exis­ting diaspora, which, in the case of France, is very small ? Applying this addi­tional crite­rion would entail asking Ukrai­nian immi­grants already living in the country to take respon­si­bi­lity for inco­ming refu­gees, a task suppo­sedly assumed by govern­ments under the prin­ciple of equity defended by the Euro­pean Union. Were the French govern­ment to apply this doctrine, the promise of a warm welcome to refu­gees announced with such panache would be no more than an empty gesture.

“But France must play its part”: Michel Rocard’s belated remorse

“France cannot take all the misery of the world on its shoul­ders, but it must play its part.” Emma­nuel Macron’s alluded to this famous phrase by Michel Rocard in his speech. Some were shocked to hear it cited without its second part. It is worth reading the excellent analysis by Juliette Déborde on this point : “’Misère du monde’, ce qu’a vrai­ment dit Michel Rocard”, Libé­ra­tion, Désintox column, 22 April 2015 (link in french). On 3 December 1989, soon after the affair of the Muslim head­scarf in Creil, the then prime minister clearly stated on the TF1 TV channel : “We cannot take all the misery of the world on our shoul­ders”. He repeated the same words to the National Assembly on 13 December, before driving the message home in January 1990 in front of a group of MPs of North African origin : “I thought hard before pronoun­cing this phrase. I believed that it was my duty to take full respon­si­bi­lity for my words. I say it clearly today. France is no longer, can no longer be a recei­ving country for new immi­grants. I have said it before and I remain convinced today that however gene­rous we may be, we cannot take all the misery of the world on our shoulders”.

It was not until 24 August 1996, in a tribune in Le Monde, that Michel Rocard, perhaps measu­ring the dama­ging effects of his adage, added this caveat “but France must play its part”. A penti­mento, as they say in the art world, but pronounced after seven years of reflection.

The author

Fran­çois Héran is a demo­gra­pher, holder of the Migra­tion and Socie­ties Chair at the Collège du France and director of IC Migration.

Quote this article

Fran­çois Héran, “And if France were to truly “play its part” in recei­ving refu­gees ? Antonin Durand, Thomas Chopard, Cathe­rine Gous­seff and Claire Zalc (eds.), Feature “Migra­tion and the borders of Ukraine at war”, De facto [Online], 33 | June 2022, posted online on 24 June 2022. URL :–04/


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