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French parliament debates healthcare for undocumented migrants

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Debate on immigration kicks off at the French National Assembly and ends Wednesday at the Senate, 7 October 2019 ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP

A year after France adopted a controversial asylum bill, French lawmakers are again debating immigration, which has seen those on the left and right of the political divide spar over healthcare for undocumented immigrants.


France's migration policy will be vigorously debated in "six key areas" the government said Monday, with a particular emphasis on the social benefits accorded to asylum seekers.

The aim is "not to make France less welcoming but not more attractive either," a government press release stated.

The debate comes amid the toughening of conditions for migrants. Last year, lawmakers voted in a controversial asylum law accelerating the asylum process and making it easier to expel rejected applicants.

Last month too, President Emmanuel Macron said that "France cannot host everyone" and urged his centrist party to shed what he calls its “bourgeois” stance and face up to the reality of immigration.

Make lives worse

Macron has centred his criticism on the cost of healthcare for undocumented immigrants, too expensive.

Last year, over 300,000 undocumented migrants benefited from the national health care system, known in French as the Aide Médicale d'Etat at a cost of 930 million euros.

The government doesn't want to scrap the policy, but plans to "reevaluate" it. This has rattled rights groups.

"Access to free healthcare is one of the last remaining rights available to undocumented migrants," says François Guennoc, vice-president of the NGO l'Auberge des Migrants or hostel for migrants, which helps migrants stranded at Calais.

"Everyday, l’Auberge des migrants volunteers to drive people to the hospital in Calais or Dunkerque, people suffering from tuberculosis. Their situation is already tough. If we start denying them healthcare, their situation will get even worse, and it will make our jobs harder too," he told RFI.

Fears of medical tourism

Calls to re-evaluate the amount of healthcare awarded to undocumented migrants stem from fears that the system is being taken advantage of.

In September, centrist lawmaker Stanislas Guerini sent tongues wagging by insinuating that migrants were coming to France to benefit from free breast implants and that the welfare system was being siphoned for personal use.

"Fears of medical tourism are unfounded," insists Guennoc, referring to the practice whereby people cross international borders in order to access medical care.

"It is dangerous not to treat someone who's sick purely for political reasons. The long-term consequences would be extremely serious not only for them but for the rest of the French population, who may end up getting infected."

Aid workers accuse Macron's government of trying to woo voters away from Marine Le Pen's Far right National Rally party.

"Using state healthcare as a tool to curb immigration defies the whole purpose of why it was created," comments Nathalie Godard from the NGO Médecins du Monde.

"Besides, only 90 percent of people who are entitled to state healthcare actually get it, because the criteria is already too strict," she told RFI.

Double standards

Monday's debate, which lasts until Wednesday, is not intended to end in a vote, but critics fear this is where France is headed.

"The government keeps talking about how we're swamped by migrants. It's not true," comments Claire Rodier, from the immigrants support group Gisti.

"We are told that there is too much abuse and not enough action, it's the same thing we've been hearing for 30 years," she told AFP.

France last year received a record 122,743 asylum requests, up 22 percent compared with 2017. The applicants were mainly from Georgia and Albania.

"It’s a reality that the number of people applying for asylum has increased but we are not the only country in Europe which has this problem," says Guennoc of l'Auberge des Migrants.

Furthermore, "why is it ok for French people to go abroad to find a good job and a better life but not ok for people from Georgia or Albania?"

Lawmakers have until Wednesday to mull their answer and decide whether to reform healthcare for migrants.