The constrained displacement of asylum-seekers in France: how emergency became a long-lasting policy

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The ‘refugee crisis’ and the solution of dispersal

During the 2015 “refugee crisis” in Europe, temporary transit centres emerged in France as a tool to prevent urban street camps – mainly the ones of the Calais and Paris regions – by relocating migrants to other localities. Seven years later, transit centres, intended as temporary emergency humanitarian structures, still exist. In fact, they also have become an institutionalised cornerstone of France’s migration policy and accommodation system. Hence, the emergency crisis response has had an enduring impact on policy. Today, with annual targets set of how many asylum-seekers need to be relocated from the regions ‘in tension’ (namely Paris today) to other places, France’s public hosting now firmly relies on a strategy of relocating—and further displacing— those who have already been displaced.

The genesis of the transit centres

The first emergency transit camps opened as of the summer 2015; the national accommodation system had for decades been over capacity and the influx of arrivals, partly due to the Syrian conflict, only further intensified this. Street camps sprung up, particularly in Paris and Calais, which received a great deal of media coverage. The transit centres were born on this idea: there were still some vacancies that could serve those who would decide to move to remote locations to flee the street. While these centres in more remote parts of the country have since closed, street camps have continued to exist, most notably in the Paris region as the demand for shelter exceeds the accommodation system’s capacity.

In response, other institutionalised centres operating since 2018 have been created (sometimes even by solely changing the names of the former). In addition, a system of targets has been implemented and the latest guidance mandates relocating 30,000 asylum-seekers (close to 1/3 of country’s total annual asylum claims). Hence, the logic did not disappear with the crisis, and transit centres are now even considered as ‘the front door’ of the accommodation system in France by the authorities. People wait to be removed elsewhere.

Initially, the relocation was supposed to be ‘voluntary’ for asylum seekers in the street camps. However, the law actually transformed it into a sine qua non. The shift from emergency to routinized practices of relocation also changed the rules. In addition, quantified targets went hand in hand with tools of constraint to reach them.

Displacement under constraint

To reach this target of 30 000 individuals displaced, a tool of constraint has emerged to implement this policy: public assistance dedicated to asylum seekers is now conditioned to the acceptance of one’s own displacement.  In case of refusal:

  • The 450€ per person and per month allowance is withdrawn. This money is intended to support asylum seekers given the prohibition on work for them in France.
  • The state’s accommodation facilities are inaccessible during the whole asylum procedure – that lasts around one year.

Practically, this means that refusing to be relocated is a direct threat to individuals’ most basic needs –to the essentials needed to survive. Refusing would force them to wait for their asylum-claim adjudication and accompanying legal status without financial support or the ability to work. But, they are still told they have “a choice.”

This hence raises the question of soft tools reinforcing constraint on some populations, without a proper legal and formalized prohibition or obligation to move. Here the traditional division between legal rules and economic incentives seems to vanish given that there are two tools of constraint that can be activated together.

Manifest and latent functions of transit centres

What this research underlines is that the French national hosting system, created to accommodate and shelter asylum seekers, is at the same time used as a tool to displace them. Motivated by the ‘necessity’ to host and rationalise the system, transit centres participate de facto in a deeper control on space. Of course, this ‘necessity’ is to qualify as sociology shows how a public problem is a question of framing and choices. Namely: access to work, policies on integration, language, insertion etc.

This development can be seen as a deviation from the obvious, or manifest objectives of the system – to accommodate individuals – towards a logic of power exercised over the migrant bodies and their location in the national space. That can be defined as a latent function of the dispositive.

France as a case in a broader European dynamic

This situation occurs in a broader European movement. The French system is directly inspired by the German model, which introduced a quota system between its Länders at the start of the crisis. This sub-national management system is not proper to France, but these models circulate in Europe. More broadly, European countries have seen ‘urgent’ growth in their reception facilities: Italy, for example, opened new centres that are less well equipped than the former ones and that were supposed to be temporary. They too have moved into the mainstream of reception.

A worrying ‘emergency’

The absorption and perpetuation of these humanitarian crisis centres into the mainstream reception system is proof of what anthropologist Michel Agier calls the ‘ideology of emergency’—a politically created emergency that lasts.

In the case developed regarding the Paris region, these centres are concretely located in large warehouses and former sport halls and seem to be permanent arrangements. After seven years, street camps still exist in the North of the city; people are still being evacuated recurrently and transported in these centres, creating an environment of a perpetual humanitarian crisis. Hence, this ‘ideology of emergency’ is not neutral and justifies both the very existence of permanent transit centres and the constraint of individuals through displacement.


Maxime Christophe is a PhD student in sociology in Paris (Sciences Po – CRIS) working on hosting policies towards individuals classified as ‘asylum seekers’ in Europe. He was a visiting student in the Migration Policy Centre in Florence for the spring semester 2023.

This post is part of ongoing research developed in his PhD work, and drawn partly from a book chapter that is to be published.

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