The Curious Case of ‘Little Damascus’ - Perception vs Reality on Refugees in France
France has an immigration problem.’ No matter where you find yourself - in the young, metropolitan quarters of Paris or the small villages deep in the campagne, you will hear this common French phrase. The feeling of anxiety on immigration is shared by young and old, left and right. As of 2022, eighty-five percent of French believe that immigration has increased significantly in recent years, and over half believes that this immigration has negatively impacted the country.
The reasons for these concerns differ from person to person across French society.
53% of French agree that there is a major terrorist threat from refugees, often because they don’t believe Islam can be reckoned with French secular laicite and public irreligiosity. 38% even believe that Islam is entirely incompatible with French identity and loyalty to France. Finally, many point to the French nation and economy as too overburdened to handle migrants and refugees, that admitting these culturally disparate people weakens the social contract and respect for French society. 45% believe France cannot accept any migrants and refugees right now, and over half believe that asylum-seekers are in fact disingenuous economic migrants. Last but not least, 65% of French believe that refugees and migrants claim benefits and use public services without contributing to French society in return (1.)
Just because most people believe these points, does not make them true. Immigration has been at a near consistent level in France for two decades. French society and French laicite is no stranger to African or muslim migrants. It has accommodated and integrated such residents for over 100 years. Refugees as ‘disingenuous economic migrants’ is illogical, refugees cannot legally work in France while their asylum application is processed. Both refugees and migrants find it difficult to secure any benefits from the French state. As for reciprocating these benefits, the answer is simple: migrants contribute because migrants work. The economic studies on these very same immigration concerns suggest that migrants are, at worst, ‘fiscally neutral’ - they have a negligible impact on native employment, native wages, and public finances (2.) On the other hand, migration seems to have a positive effect on French GDP per capita and public revenues, appearing quickly and growing over time. This is logical when considering that most migrants to France are young and far from retirement, and many had education in their homelands. Even asylum seekers, who cannot work right away, could not statistically be shown to worsen public finances, unemployment or standard of living (3.)
However, if you were to raise these facts in any French discussion on immigration, you would quickly find they are completely irrelevant to the societal conversation you are entering. The reasons for concern raised before - Islam, wages, terrorist risk, public spending - are national issues. Yet they always appear as extension, example, or a secondary rationale of France’s true national anxiety over immigration: integration. National anxieties go beyond national issues; this is a question of identity, perception, and society itself.
Immigrants and refugees are not properly integrated into French society. On the left, many blame governmental and societal exclusion for the lack of integration. On the right, the immigrants and refugees themselves are blamed for not making efforts to integrate into their new nation’s culture and customs. Regardless of who is right or wrong, the perception of the ‘integration problem’ is universal. And it is self-fulfilling. Any national society is built on self-perception, of who is ‘us’ and who is the ‘other’ - whether it is for racial, ideological, religious, ethnic, or linguistic reasons. Integration into a culture and society is then entirely a matter of perception, a dialogue of rules and assumptions to mark who is sufficiently seen as ‘us’ and who remains the ‘other’ (4)(5.) Integration is not only a matter of immigrant and refugee efforts to fit in. It is a playing field whose rules rest entirely on French identity, perceptions and acceptance. If the French population believes immigrants and refugees are not integrated, then they are not integrated.
Most research on the refugee and migrant experience in France focuses on French perceptions and acceptance of migrants and refugees. However, less examined is the blurry intersection between the labels placed on refugees and the reality of their lives - namely, how each informs the other. Integration is a game of perceptions, so it is worth investigating if they hold a degree of truth.
It is at this crossroads we find the phrase ‘Little Damascus.’ As often as you will hear that France has an immigration problem, you will hear that it is because immigrants and refugees do not integrate and simply ‘stick to themselves.’ Isolated communities of Muslim refugees were given this moniker after Syrian refugees arrived en masse in 2015. It reflects a core assumption of French society.
However, on the surface level, this perception is not purely constructed. French refugees do seem insulated in concentrated communities of similar religious, national or ethnic identities. Most refugees and migrants in France are found in large urban areas, with Paris far in the lead (6.) Within these urban areas there are ‘clusters’ of refugee and migrant communities, which are of course highly visible to the dense French urban populations who have dubbed certain neighborhoods as ‘Africa’. Tent cities and makeshift settlements were extremely visible, notably at ‘The Jungle’ massive refugee camp of Calais, but also the Parisian Canal Saint Martin, and still at the Bastille, the Porte de la Chapelle, and across the Parisian north-east (7.) In just four years from 2015-2019, over 60 refugee tent camps in this north-eastern area were demolished by police (8.) Settled refugees and migrants in Paris still seem to concentrate in very specific areas: the 18eme arrondissement district, Aubervilliers, and Seine Saint-Denis, among others.
It is forbidden by law in France to collect data by discrimination of the population, but since the refugee crisis, some neighborhoods are even more crowded by northern and Western Africans, consisting a majority of French refugees and a majority in those neighborhoods. These highly visible ‘immigrant’ areas and refugee tent cities are touted as proof that refugees refuse to integrate into society and prefer to 'stick to themselves,’ but is this their choice?
Concentration does not prove insulation, nor a choice of insulation. Refugees and migrants have many administrative, economic and legal barriers that can concentrate them in certain neighborhoods or tent cities. They are resettled by the French authorities to certain parts of French cities, and neither refugees nor migrants can work legally until they are processed. The latter face quotas and slow administrative processing. It's thus impossible for them to leave where they have been resettled while new migrants continue to arrive and increase the concentration of people.
However, insulation, just as integration, is also a question of identity and community. Migrants either leave or flee their country. Their adaptation into a complete new environment carries grief for their disrupted past life and bereavement as they lose their culture. It's an adaptation but also an assimilation of new cultural habits, references and codes to be taken from the surrounding population - yet the surrounding population may be other migrants (9.)
This concentration of migrants of a similar cultural, religious or ethnic background has potential to create insulated communities. The forced ostracism of migrants complicates their grieving but could be eased by community ties and social support in these neighborhoods. Migrants can maintain much of their former cultural identity and sense of belonging here, more comfortable to their self-image, yet this may exclude a new sense of belonging in their host country. However, living in these neighborhoods does not necessarily create insulation. In fact, more often it eases their assimilation process by giving them support upon arrival and creating healthy links to their cultural or religious origins while they construct their new identity. In short, these neighborhoods are not barriers to integration, and often aid it (9.) The treatment of migrants and refugees by French society and government is, instead, the dominant barrier.
This ill treatment can create insulation, as in the example of ‘little Damascus’ and Syrian refugees. The negative reaction of a minority of Syrian refugees created a cession inside their own community. The main reasons are cultural or religious, often over the topic of the hijab. Yet as a whole, Syrian neighborhoods were not insulated. Most Syrians balanced assimilation with their valued connections to Syrian culture, family and support networks. Some experienced the opposite of insulation, feeling distressed in these neighborhoods due to personal differences to the Syrian community (10.) The reception from French society, meanwhile, provided many blocks to integration. The French government does not recognize Syrian professional licenses and education, Syrian refugees often experienced dozens of job rejections and needed to work in unfamiliar sectors. Their experience, origins and clothing are discriminated against. Finally, the experience of Syrian refugees again suggests the French perceptions on integration can be self-fulfilling. The French government would group Syrian refugees in specific areas, segregated from French society and reinforcing existing perceptions of insulation. French society over-generalized Syrian refugees as dangerous, lazy, or backward, significantly increasing the bias against them (10.) This bias meant a much higher bar for Syrian refugees to integrate, discouraging many of them - making insulation in like-ethnic neighborhoods and cultural enclaves more appealing.
1. Beddiar, Annick. “Attitudes towards Refugees, Immigrants and Identity in France.” Human Dignity Foundation, More in Common, https://www.humandignity.foundation/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Attitudes-towards-refugees-immigrants-and-identity-in-France.pdf.
2. Edo, Anthony. The Effects of Immigration in Developed Countries: Insights ... - Cepii. CEPII, http://www.cepii.fr/PDF_PUB/pb/2018/pb2018-22.pdf.
3. Mussachio, Saman. “The Beneficial Effect of Migration on the Economy.” CNRS News, https://news.cnrs.fr/articles/the-beneficial-effect-of-migration-on-the-economy.
4. Berry, J. W. (1992). Acculturation and adaptation in a new society. International Migration, 30, 69.
5. Kuhlman, T. (1991). The economic integration of refugees in developing countries: A research model. Journal of Refugee Studies, 4(1), 1–29. https://doi.org/10.1093/jrs/4.1.1
6. Matthieu Tardis, “Another Story from the ‘Refugee Crisis’: Resettlement in Small Towns and Rural Areas in France”, Études de l’Ifri, Ifri, July 2019.
7. “'Chaos at the Gates of Paris': Inside the Sprawling Migrant Camps Nobody Talks About.” The Local France, 29 Mar. 2019, https://www.thelocal.fr/20190329/out-of-sight-but-still-there-the-scandal-of-squalid-paris-migrant-camps/.
8. Byrne, Madeleine. “On the Streets of Paris: The Experience of Displaced Migrants and Refugees.” MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 2 Apr. 2021, https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0760/10/4/130.
9. Bhugra, Dinesh, and Matthew A Becker. “Migration, Cultural Bereavement and Cultural Identity.” World Psychiatry : Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), Masson Italy, Feb. 2005, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1414713/.
10. Feinstein, Scott, et al. “States and Refugee Integration: A Comparative Analysis of France, Germany, and Switzerland - Journal of International Migration and Integration.” SpringerLink, Springer Netherlands, 7 Jan. 2022, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12134-021-00929-8.
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Samuel is a Masters in International Security at Sciences Po, Paris. He researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & Sciences Po Internship programme.