Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, more than 5.5 million people have fled the country of which more than 50,000 have been welcomed by France. These refugees have been granted temporary status that entitles them to work and receive social and medical assistance.
However, foreign students who were living in Ukraine and who were also forced to flee have been exempted from this scheme – and they now find themselves in a complicated situation that risks jeopardising their university studies and, possibly, their professional careers.
When he fled the port city of Odesa a few days after the start of the war in Ukraine, Merdi couldn’t have imagined his journey would turn into an obstacle course with the goal being to stay in France. “We thought France would welcome us, but that is not the case. They tell us we don’t have a nationality – that we were in Ukraine only to study and now we have to go home,” said the 26-year-old Congolese student, who arrived in France on March 11.
Merdi’s case is not an isolated one. According to the Union des étudiants exiles (Union of exiled students) and the France Fraternités union, there are around 1,000 foreign students who have fled Ukraine and are experiencing the same difficulties staying in France.
The crux of the problem is administrative and dates back to early March, when many European Union countries pledged to move quickly to help those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. France decided to implement the EU’s “temporary protection directive”, aimed at aiding displaced persons. Valid for three months, it grants several protections to refugees, including the right to a place of residence as well as access to jobs, education, and social and medical assistance.
But the foreign students living in Ukraine were excluded from this emergency measure.
“France excluded foreign students from the temporary protection measures by giving them a one-month residence permit instead,” said Pierre Henry, president of the France Fraternités union. The rationale being that, “their countries are not at war, so they can go home”.
Sabar, an Algerian student who fled Lviv when the war started, also found himself in difficulty upon his arrival in France. “The prefecture gave me just a one-month residence permit. Now, they want me to return to Algeria. But I don’t want to – I spent a lot of money to go to Ukraine, study and get my diploma,” the 25-year-old said.
‘The Kafkaesque option’
After arriving in Paris on March 14, Sabar endured two days of hardship before finding a hotel that welcomed refugees. “I slept outside near a train station,” he said.
Now trapped in an administrative quagmire, he just wants to continue his studies in France. “I tried to enroll in several universities in Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Strasbourg and Bordeaux. But they didn’t reply.”
“They are going to tell me that if I want a six-month residence permit to be able to stay, I will have to be registered at a university or have a guarantee of employment. My problem is that I haven’t found anything in a month. But I don’t want to leave,” Sabar said.
The same goes for Merdi, who just wants to continue his studies abroad. “I am afraid that I will be told to go back to Congo. If I can, I would like to continue my studies at a university here. That’s the only thing I want.”
The plight of African students who have fled Ukraine has spurred many in France to action. Among them is a group of university presidents and lecturers who are alarmed by their circumstances.
In a contribution published in “Le Monde” newspaper in April, the academics called for France to “continue educating the students that Ukraine chose to welcome”. Leftist student political organisations, such as Le Poing Levé (Raised Fist), are trying to increase the pressure on university presidents to enroll these students who find themselves caught in the middle of world affairs.
“It is an absurd situation,” Henry said. “We have chosen the Kafkaesque option rather than offering protection for all.”
He said these students, who have no intention of returning home, will soon find themselves in very precarious circumstances on French territory.
“It is a real waste, because these are French-speaking students. Since half of their education is already complete and considering their professional prospects have been totally destroyed by the war, the logical thing would be to allow them to register in France and continue their studies,” he added.
Some universities are, however, beginning to change their position and accept foreign students. “Twenty or so are in the pre-registration phase and taking applications,” Mathieu Schneider, president of the Migrants in Higher Education network of French institutions, told “Les Echos Start” media on April 19.
‘Everyone is a victim of this war’
The administrative status of students caught up in this situation remains up in the air. France’s prefectures, which handle immigration applications, favour taking a case-by-case approach, with decisions seeming to vary from one regional administration to another.
Several people, including a Congolese student living in Aveyron, said they had received provisional residence permits good for several months instead of for just one (which remains the official rule).
So which requirements currently prevail? the French ministry of the interior detailed the arrangements available to people eligible for temporary protection, notably through Campus France, which allows eligible people to apply to enroll in French higher education.
Regarding the situation being faced by foreign students in France, the ministry said the treatment of third-country nationals is part of the EU Council’s temporary protection directive, noting: “If a third-country national is not eligible for temporary protection, he or she should return to his or her country of origin.”
However, other countries, including Portugal and Spain, have chosen to adapt the EU framework and welcome all those fleeing Ukraine.
The Council of Europe has been alarmed by the varied treatments displaced people are getting in EU member states. A report published at the beginning of April referred to a “double standard” in the reception of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants depending on their country of origin.
Foreign students thus either have to relocate to those countries that have decided to universally welcome those fleeing Ukraine or return to their countries of origin. The other option is to apply for asylum or a residence permit, provided they meet the required conditions, and hope for the best.
Sabar and Merdi have an appointment at the prefecture in the next few days to find out what their future holds. The young Algerian says continuing his studies and staying in France is “the best thing that can happen”.
Merdi still does not understand why he is being treated differently from another refugee: “No one wanted to leave Ukraine to come to France. It’s not our fault. It’s the war that caused all of these problems. Everyone is a victim of this war.”
“It’s the Ukrainians’ country, but we also lived there,” he said. “We paid for university. We have the right to be treated like them. There should be no difference.”