PARIS — Asylum claims in France hit a record 100,000 last year, official figures showed Monday, as President Emmanuel Macron’s government draws up hotly-debated new legislation on immigration.
Officials said the rate of arrivals was "historic", with Albanians forming the biggest group of applicants despite their country being considered safe by France.
"It confirms that France is one of the countries receiving the most asylum claims in Europe," said Pascal Brice, head of France’s refugee protection agency OFPRA.
"It’s a historic level," he added, though he noted the numbers are just half of those seen in neighbouring Germany last year.
Macron’s government is preparing to unveil a bill on immigration next month, but his centrist Republique En Marche (Republic On The Move) party are divided on how to tackle the issue.
Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe have vowed to speed up the process for managing asylum requests and offering improved conditions for successful applicants.
But they have also promised a much tougher line on economic migrants that would see an increased number of deportations and tighter controls on people arriving.
Last year France forcibly removed 26,000 people from the country, a 14 per cent increase on the year before, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said on Monday.
"The goal now is to improve the conditions of repatriation, whether voluntary or forced," he added.
In his New Year’s message, Macron had warned that France "cannot welcome everyone" although he pledged an immigration policy that walked the line between "humanity and efficiency".
Albanians made up the biggest group applying for asylum in France last year -- some 7,600 adults, almost all of them set to be sent home because their home country is considered "safe".
Brice attributed the 66-per cent jump in Albanian asylum claims to "economic emigration", an issue he said was worrying authorities in both countries.
Albania announced an action plan in July to fight trafficking, with France complaining that too many spaces in its refuges are taken up by Albanians who will never be granted asylum.
Afghans made up the second biggest group last year with nearly 6,000 applications, followed by migrants from Haiti, Guyana and Sudan.
Applications from Syria were down 10 percent to just over 3,000, though almost all of them were granted asylum.
OFPRA also reported a sharp rise in applications from francophone west Africa including Ivory Coast and DR Congo. Brice said they were part of the wave of migrants crossing to Europe from Libya.
In December, migrants’ rights groups heavily criticised a decision to take a census of the population of migrant shelters, saying this went against their mission to provide unconditional aid.
Under pressure, Prime Minister Philippe promised a public consultation. Though the notorious "Jungle" camp in Calais was dismantled in 2016, many migrants continue to head to the northern French coast hoping to reach Britain, an issue which will be on the agenda when Macron heads to London for talks later this month. — AFP