France struggles to deport undocumented migrants, raising questions about the role of migrant detention centres

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, some undocumented migrants have been serving longer detention times in France without a clear removal date due to flight and border restrictions, raising legal questions about the role of administrative migrant detention centres (CRA) in France.

Ahead of the second-round of the French presidential elections, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen largely agree on one issue: faster removal times for undocumented migrants in France. 

Incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron said in a press conference that he would speed up application processes for the right of asylum and residency for faster removal proceedings, adding that the refusal of asylum status would result in deportation. Meanwhile, his far-right rival Le Pen, if elected in the Elysée, plans to launch a referendum in the French constitution that would drastically reduce immigration in France, vowing to launch a “systematic” expulsion of undocumented foreigners.

But the reality is that since the Covid-19 pandemic, the French government has struggled to deport migrants due to flight and border restrictions, according to a 2021 report on French administrative detention centres by La Cimade, Groupe SOS Solidarités-Assfam, and three other migrant intervention groups.

In 2020, Macron’s administration issued over 100,000 Obligations to Leave the French Territory (OQTF), but deported only 6% of people, nearly half of the undocumented migrants removed two years prior, the report said. 

As a result, some migrants have found themselves in a “never-ending cycle of confinement,” moving from one administrative detention centre (CRA) to the next, and in some cases, landing in prison, the report said. The average holding period by CRAs rose to 22 days in 2021, an increase of six days compared to the last couple of years. The maximum length is 90 days.

Without a clear removal date for migrants, the longer detention times technically violate the French code of entry and residence of foreigners and the right of asylum (CESEDA), which says that CRAs may not hold migrants longer than the time strictly necessary before departure as it infringes on their civil liberties, raising legal questions about the role of CRAs in France.

“One cannot say that it is illegal since the courts have validated it,” said Mathilde Buffière, a legal expert who intervenes at four migrant detention centres in Paris-Vincennes, Metz Strasbourg, and Lille on behalf of the non-political group, SOS Solidarités-Assfam. “But the position of the courts can be questioned.”

While Covid-19 border restrictions have been easing worldwide, most countries still require proof of vaccination or a PCR test to board flights. Some undocumented migrants, who have tried bypassing deportation by refusing a Covid-19 test, have been prosecuted for evading removal. French judges disagree on whether denying a medical test—a fundamental right—constitutes a criminal offence, the report said.

“I refused the PCR test because I didn’t want to embark on the plane,” a 22-year-old Tunisian detainee at the Mesnil-Amelot migrant detention centre said over the phone. “I was put in prison for it. I didn’t want to leave because I have a whole life here [in France].”

But the health crisis hasn’t been the only factor to compound border restrictions abroad—geopolitical pressures have also recently played a role.

Algeria has been refusing to take back undocumented Algerians in France “following tensions between France and Algeria, linked to the announcement of a reduction in the number of visas for Algerian nationals,” according to an email sent by the Directorate-General for Foreign Nationals in France (DGEF), obtained by Médiapart and Streetpress.

The email, sent December 9, refers to a decision by Macron to reduce the number of visas for Moroccan and Algerian nationals by half, and Tunisian by 30% in response to Maghreb countries not readmitting their undocumented nationals. 

The problem is that France can’t remove undocumented migrants without approval from the country of origin first, which has left many Algerians without proper immigration paperwork stranded in migrant detention centers in France.

“What I question is not so much the diplomatic position of France and Algeria on this issue,” Buffière, one of the co-authors of the CRA report, said. “But rather, the fact that, overall, there are people who are locked up without the possibility of removal.”

North Africans, on average, are locked up for 31 days, far more than any other retained nationality, according to the CRA report. 

The Maghreb was also one of the hardest hit regions by Covid-19 on the African continent in 2020, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). To curb the spread of the pandemic and its strain on limited medical infrastructure, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia adopted strict containment measures in the early days of the outbreak.

“The Maghreb countries didn’t want to take back people coming from France because there was an epidemic. Their reaction was—in quotes, ‘normal’—given the context,” said Patrick Berdugo, a French lawyer who represents migrants at CRAs. But now, Algeria’s border closure to undocumented Algerians in France “is a complete rupture in diplomatic relations.”

It’s also not the first time that border closures have impacted migrant detention centres in France, according to Berdugo, the vice-president of the Lawyers for the Defence of Foreigners’ Rights association (ADDE). The consulates in Tunisia close every summer for vacation, so there’s no possibility to arrange flights for removal, Berdugo explained. 

Despite the French government struggling to deport undocumented migrants within a short time period, more than 430 new spaces at CRAs have opened to detain more migrants, according to the report. On 17 January 2022, a second centre was built in Lyon with 140 spaces. 

Migrant detention centres “don’t serve a purpose today,” Berdugo said. “We have a majority of people detained who are released in the end, so it shows that it’s not a lack of detention centres that is the problem. It’s that we’re unable to arrange flights. Creating new migrant detention centres isn’t the solution.”

The Directorate-General for Foreign Nationals in France (DGEF) did not respond to requests to comment.

Article by Lucy MARTIROSYAN

Header image: © Mark Buckawicki / Wikimedia Commons

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