France gives red carpet welcome to refugees relocated from Malta

News Stories, 10 July 2009

© UNHCR/W.Spindler
Some of the 92 refugees and people in need of international protection after arriving in Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport.

PARIS, France, July 10 (UNHCR) A group of 92 people in need of international protection received the red carpet treatment at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on Thursday, as they completed the last leg of a long and hazardous journey via Malta from their homes in Africa and Asia.

French Immigration Minister Eric Besson greeted the newcomers after they flew into a cloudy Paris on Thursday afternoon from sunny Malta. The group, including 20 children, was made up of people from various nationalities. More than half (57) were Somalis. There were also 18 Eritreans, nine Sudanese, three Ethiopians, three Sri Lankans and two people from Côte d'Ivoire.

"I wish you all the best in France. I wish you peace and happiness in your new life," Besson told the new arrivals, whom France had agreed to accept from Malta as a gesture of European responsibility sharing and solidarity. "Your future starts here," he added.

Every year hundreds of desperate migrants and asylum-seekers arrive in Malta, a tiny island nation of 400,000 inhabitants, after making the perilous boat trip across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa. They have fled poverty, persecution or war.

To help Malta, the French government agreed to receive 96 people whom the Maltese authorities had given either refugee status or subsidiary protection. Of these, 92 arrived in Paris on Thursday, while the rest, an Iraqi family of four, will come at a later date.

"France is proud to be the European country that receives the most asylum-seekers," Besson told journalists covering the arrival. "This not a case of immigration but of asylum, which is a completely different thing. To those chased out of their country by oppression, France will do everything necessary to integrate them."

The minister also told the new arrivals about some of France's core values, including liberty, equality and fraternity as well as religious tolerance and secularism. He said they were expected to do their best to become self-sufficient and integrate, particularly by learning French.

"It's good to learn French to be able to communicate with people and find a job," said Abdirisaaq, a 21-year-old man who fled Mogadishu in Somalia and made his way through Kenya, Sudan and Libya, before making the sea voyage to Malta. "Today, I feel as happy as the day that I was saved from the sea and touched land after fours days at sea," he said.

After receiving refreshments and talking to officials and journalists, the group was taken by bus to collective centres in the towns of Nanterre, Poitiers, Créteil and Oissel, where they will stay until they find employment and accommodation.

Halimu, a Somali woman wearing white flowing robes and with henna patterns on her hands, said in fluent English before heading to an accommodation centre in Oissel: "I'm very happy because I will start my life again, improve my education and eventually reunite with my husband and children."

By William Spindler in Paris, France

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