A 31-year-old Syrian refugee this past week staged a knife attack at a playground in a public park in the town of Annecy in southeastern France that left six severely injured, including four preschool children, aged 22 to 36 months.
The Syrian refugee is in custody and the investigation is ongoing, but the attack is raising questions about the migratory journey of this refugee and is stirring a debate around France’s, and Europe’s, immigration policies, including the need to review the existing asylum system and revisit the 1951 Refugee Convention that has become obsolete, according to many. The United States needs to have the same debate.
Eric Ciotti, President of the right-wing pollical party “Les Republicains” founded by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, shared his outrage in the French media following this attack (all translations from French to English in this post are mine):
Faced with such terrible acts, a question arises quickly: did we do everything we could to prevent this? For years and years now…I’m referring to a collective responsibility here. Beyond this affair, there is a migratory chaos that is disrupting Europe, that is hitting France with an immigration that has gone totally unchecked. An immigration that is strongly linked to insecurity and rising violence!
He also pointed to the “catastrophic management of asylum in Europe.”
Francois Bellamy, member of the European parliament and Vice President of Les Republicans, was also outraged by the attack, linking it to the migration policy of the French government:
Yes, this tragedy is indeed linked to flaws in our migration policy. And what should shock us all is not that these flaws are being denounced, but that they have been going on for too long, and that they are now putting in harm’s way our children.
Moreover, this individual is a perfect example of a problem we have been denouncing for years now, that is, it is imperative today that asylum claims are executed outside the European Union frontiers. This man of Syrian origin resided in Turkey for a long time, he should have claimed asylum in Turkey, gotten a positive or negative answer there. We would have been spared tragedies of this nature…What we should all be talking about, is failures of our immigration policy. It’s not a question of political party, it concerns us all. What’s at stake here is the security of every French national, every family.
Others, like left-leaning journalist Laurent Joffrin, were quick to underline the legality of the Syrian refugee’s presence in France. According to the Dublin regulation, a person granted refugee status – or any other legal status for that matter – in a Schengen country (Sweden, in this case) can move freely to any other European country within the Schengen region. So, in his opinion, nothing could have prevented this criminal act since there was no illegal entry or stay. Joffrin went on to defend the financial aid given to asylum seekers in France as they await the outcome of their asylum cases (some 400 euros of French taxpayers’ money per month that this Syrian national received). In his view, “the refugee convention and the aid refugees receive are necessary, they are not meant for the fake refugees but for the real ones.”
But the question remains, how does one make this distinction relatively quickly to avoid overstays and abuses of aid and benefits? The system is overwhelmed with asylum cases (fake and real); it takes months if not years for cases to be adjudicated. Meanwhile, asylum seekers are settling and receiving government aid and various benefits. What is even more puzzling is that, even when cases are rejected, people are not made to leave. Hence, the suggestion to process asylum seekers outside Europe (what is called “externalization”) and welcome only those whose cases were accepted while encouraging transit countries to halt migration flows and act as “gatekeepers.”
Here's what we know about the attacker's refugee journey as it was related in the French media.
Abdalmasih Hanoun was born in Syria in 1991. On his asylum claims, he identifies as Christian. He left Syria following the outbreak of the civil war in 2011 and went to Turkey where he met his future wife, also a Syrian national. As the wife explained to a French journalist who reached out to her after her husband’s attack, they moved to Sweden in 2013:
We met in Turkey, we fell in love and we came to Sweden. After two years, we got married. But he wasn’t able to obtain the Swedish nationality, so he decided to leave the country [eight months ago]. We separated because I didn’t want to leave Sweden.
The wife is reported to be Swedish as well but it is not clear if she held the Swedish citizenship before moving there with her future husband or after. The couple has a three-year-old daughter.
Hanoun applied for asylum and was granted refugee status and a resident’s card in Sweden the same year of his arrival. Sweden, then, was welcoming Syrian refugees in large numbers. In the 2010s, Sweden earned a reputation as a “humanitarian superpower” for its generous asylum acceptance rates. Since then, it has learned “that even the most benevolent state has its limits”; and a few days ago, its prime minister recognized that “large-scale immigration and poor integration simply do not work.” That is why he vowed to change the Swedish migration policy to the EU’s strictest. He wants to send a clear message that a “no to asylum means no and then you have to leave the country”, adding, “this should be obvious but isn't. Equally important is that a yes should mean that you really integrate Swedish society.” He also stressed the importance of Swedish citizenship: “it's more than just a passport. It is a social contract and that social contract contains both rights and obligations.” Learning Swedish should be a must: “the Swedish language is the way to our culture and the glue that binds us together.” Finally, he asked for a total respect of the common values that have made Sweden strong.
In Sweden, according to his wife, Hanoun did not work but was studying to be a nurse. In 2022, he was found guilty of abusing the government aid system. He was also known for having served in the Syrian army. When his application for Swedish citizenship was rejected in 2022, he left the country.
He applied for asylum in Italy and Switzerland, both applications were rejected since he already had refugee status and protection in Sweden.
He entered France legally since he held refugee status and permanent residency from Sweden and could move freely within the Schengen region. What he couldn’t do, however, following the Dublin regulation, is reside and work in France or any other country other than Sweden.
He applied for asylum in France in November 2023. His case was processed even though it should have been automatically rejected because asylum applications in the EU are not centralized. In April 2023, his case was rejected but it appears he only found out about this outcome on June 4 when he used his mobile phone to access the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons website and check on his case. Four days later he committed these heinous crimes. The French minister of interior, Gerard Darmanin, spoke of a “troubling coincidence” with regards to the timing of his attack.
The investigation will reveal more about this man’s motivations and triggers. When called after the attack, the wife showed a total disbelief:
I don’t know what happened, what you tell me is terrible, but I have no contact with him, I don’t know where he lives, how he’s doing psychologically. So I can’t say much. I don’t know much about him in the last eight months.
When questioned by reporters, his mother who has lived in the United States for ten years, declared that her daughter-in-law had shared with her that her son suffered from "serious depression".
For now, what we do know is that this man went from Turkey (not Syria) to Sweden to claim asylum from persecution (what persecution?). Sweden welcomed him. When he was unsuccessful in getting a citizenship there (likely because of benefits fraud and his past army experience) he left looking for another one. This is not a case of fleeing persecution; this is a case of country/nationality shopping.
Tragically, on June 8, innocent toddlers and adults crossed paths with him in the park.