As a ‘new Sangatte’ is announced, a look at conditions inside French detention centres

This article on migrant detention conditions was prepared for the English-language section of the French national. l’Humanité. It comes at a time when rising quotas for migrant deportations are leading to the construction of a new detention centre near Calais, close to the site of the Sangatte camp. It will be funded equally by the UK and French governments.

Northern Ireland does not have control over its migrants, who may be detained at Dungavel, Scotland. It cannot control which countries are accepted as ‘safe’ for returns – so opponents of Mugabe, for example, seeking refuge in Belfast could be returned to their fate in Harare, with the Assembly powerless to stop it. Even when Policing & Justice are devolved, immigration, asylum and international relations will remain outside Stormont’s reach, among other “excepted matters.” This matters if you have a view on innocent refugees being imprisoned for 18 months, much longer than the 42 days described by David Davis as an example of “the insidious, surreptitious and relentless erosion of fundamental British freedoms.”

As the situation in detention centres becomes more explosive by the day, while the government wishes to marginalise the Cimade, there are citizens who intend to have their right to bear witness respected. Humanité gives a platform, in Tuesday’s edition, to the women and men whose lives have been shattered.

Don’t leave us isolated and in silence.” On the 14th of February, twenty detainees at the administrative detention centre in Palaiseau (Essonne, 20km south of Paris) began a hunger strike in a cry of anger. It is a form of action that has become almost commonplace in these centres, where the undocumented await their expulsion, but this time the sound of the alarm has broken through the walls of this ’foreigners’ prison’. “It’s happening right under our noses, in our town.” We asked ourselves, “what can we do from the outside ?”, says Serge Guichard, of the French Communist Party and the United Anti-Neoliberal Left collective.

Following a few meetings between parties of the left, NGOs and simple supporters, an initial fifty volunteers decided to create a citizens’ observation scheme for Palaiseau’s detention centre. Since last week, they have been carrying out bi-weekly visits to the detainees. While the situation in the centres is becoming more explosive by the day and the Cimade[1], as the only NGO permitted to enter, has been put in the spotlight, this initiative could spark debate on the right to witness the interior of these foreigners’ prisons.

The more you lock up, the more you can expel

There are currently twenty-six detention centres in France (with four more under construction), where, according to the euphemisms of official discourse, ’foreigners in irregular situations’ are ’held’ as they wait to be ’placed at a distance from the territory.’ The centres have become a key component of the policy of expulsion quotas implemented by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2005. The more you lock up, the more you can expel… 35,008 ’held’ in 2007 (35% more than in 2004), of whom 242 were children, who cannot however, be expelled. “With the statistical steeplechase, we’re seeing new kinds of detainees arrive,” confirms Caroline Martin of the Cimade. “Not only families, but also pathologically ill people and labourers, arrested right on the building sites, who are arriving at the centres in their blue overalls.”

The mysteries of Vincennes…

The direct consequences of this industrialised detention impact on an almost daily basis : self-mutilation, attempted suicides, fires and riots. Every month now a centre is burned out : January – Bordeaux; February – Toulouse… The fire at the centre in Vincennes last June nevertheless marked a turning point. On 21st June 2008, a riot broke out following the death of a detainee. The biggest detention centre in France went up in smoke. The response of the government was repression and disinformation. The eight undocumented migrants, questioned the day after the fire, are still in preventative detention in Fresnes. The circumstances surrounding the death of Salem Souli, the crux of the riot, have not yet been clarified. In July, his remains were repatriated to Tunisia in complete discretion. His ex-partner and son of thirteen years old, no longer in contact with the victim, came to know of his death by chance in October. At the beginning of January they brought legal action, for withholding of information and manslaughter through negligence of safety obligations.

This affair is revealing as regards what happens during detention”, notes Mouhieddine Cherbib, of the Tunisian Federation for Bi-partisan citizenship (FTCR), which is taking civil action. “They tell us ’Keep a move on, there’s nothing to see here.’ But on the inside, these people do not accept to be put in prison when they haven’t done anything.”

Silence, lock-down!

In this context, the marginalisation of the Cimade is worrying. Highly critical of the policy of imprisonment, the non-denominational assistance organisation could be replaced by others who may not take the same care to bear witness. “Because Europe has adopted the Return Directive, which extends the detention limit to eighteen months, transparency is required regarding what happens in these centres”, stresses Migruerop’s Claire Rodier. At the beginning of February, that association launched a campaign demanding the right to bear witness to these imprisonment sites. “What raises questions”, she continues, “is the place detention has in the management of migration. We are in the process of trivialising a system that evokes horror.”

[1] Translator’s note: The Cimade is an NGO originally created to support WWII evacuees. Cimade members are now the principal advocates for migrants’ and refugees’ human rights in France.

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