Vacarme 37 / lignes

the detention centre maze


Foreigners facing deportation spend their last few days in France in a detention centre. They are deprived of their freedom of movement, but not their rights. However, the system seems to be geared towards dissuading them from using these rights. One in every two detainees is released without being granted legal authorisation to remain in France. No-one has ever managed to work out exactly why one person is deported while another is released. I went to the detention centre in Le Mesnil-Amelot to find out more. This article is an autopsy of a place where arbitrariness is the rule.

The last episode finished in a library in Agadez, Niger, where two men from Cameroon were watching a western on TV. They were in transit, preparing to conquer the North. But they didn’t manage to find a breach in the security barriers around Europe’s borders. They have been travelling for two years, falling further back with every step forward. They are locked in Africa (Vacarme 35). This time, the barriers are in the suburbs of Paris, near Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport. From here, you can see the wings of planes setting out for far-flung destinations. The runways and the rest of France are out of reach. The zone is surrounded by two fences topped with barbed wire. The barrier exactly fits the description the two brothers from Cameroon gave of the border between Morocco and the European Union in Melilla, which migrants have died trying to cross.

The administrative detention centre in Le Mesnil-Amelot was built on one of those nondescript plains, not quite town, not quite countryside, where motorway junctions meet warehouses behind high banks of earth, away from prying eyes. It is hard to get permission to visit, and I had to remain evasive about the exact nature of my article. After months of enquiries, emails, telephone calls, and waiting, I was given authorisation at the last minute. Nearly 5,000 illegal immigrants were detained here in 2005, which, as the commander of the gendarmerie in charge of the centre points out, is “an occupancy rate of 96.55%” [1]. He continues, “We had 108 nationalities, particularly from North Africa”. He gives me the list: “564 Algerians, 466 Romanians, 402 Malians, 342 Turks, 321 Moroccans, 170 Moldavians, 158 Chinese, 149 Tunisians, 105 Senegalese, 103 Cameroonians, 141 Congolese, 99 people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 94 from Ivory Coast”. He adds, “That’s where most of them come from, but we get a bit of everything here, even people from nowhere at all. There’s pressure from Eastern Europe, for example the Romanians come here, get deported in groups, so they don’t have to pay for their return ticket, they visit their families back home, then they come back — Romania isn’t far by coach. We also get more and more Chinese and Indians. In 2005 alone, we had 89 Indians for example, before that we never saw any at all”.

So it’s a prison for unwanted foreigners? The commander corrects me. “We detain people here. They are detainees, not prisoners. We detain them for as long as it takes to know what they are entitled to”. It’s a sort of holding pen, whose organisation was regulated only recently. It was not until the two decrees of March 19, 2001 and May 30, 2005 [2] that the actual conditions of detention were laid down for the 23 officially recognised centres. There are also smaller administrative detention centres, whose locations are kept secret.

That day, the “134 occupied beds” (including 7 women) included a group of thirty or so Pakistanis and Afghans detained near Sangatte, near Calais, who had just arrived at Le Mesnil-Amelot. They were walking around, hands in pockets and shoulders slumped, or leaning against the wall in clusters. They looked as if they had been there for weeks, their expressions haggard, unresponsive, and silent, waiting for nothing. The nurses examined them all. They are there every day, even on national holidays, and mainly diagnose illnesses associated with detention and uncertainty about the future — stress, anxiety, and insomnia, at the very least. They prescribe medication. The men scratch themselves a lot. The nurses give them a treatment for scabies, which sends a wave of panic through the centre. They haven’t had access to an interpreter. There aren’t any. They have to make do with reading their rights on forms translated into 38 languages. They refused the help of Cimade, the only association present in the detention centres, which has been working there for over twenty years. They don’t want to seek asylum in France [3], they want to try their luck in Britain. Neither have they accepted help from the National Agency for the Reception of Foreigners and Migration, which provides psychological support and concrete help for those returning to their home countries, such as closing bank accounts, making phone calls to the family, providing spare clothes, reclaiming unpaid wages from employers, receiving cash transfers, buying cigarettes when the machine is out of order, and so on. Like the other detainees, the new arrivals are housed in rectangular concrete buildings containing dozens of rooms measuring 7 square meters for two people, containing basic furniture — bunk beds, a tiny table, and a padlocked wardrobe. Each building has one television, and there is one table football game and a deserted ping pong table for the whole centre. They are woken for roll-call at 7.45 a.m. Lunch — fish, spinach, a bread roll, and a creme caramel — is at 12.30. The detainees eat their lunch in silence, at large communal tables. All that remains of their identity are their clothes and their appearance — two carefully dressed young Asian women, an African man aged about 40 in a dark suit, Russians, about the same age, in pale suits, ill-dressed young men from North Africa. “They treat us like dogs here, put that in your newspaper, we’ve done nothing wrong and they put us in here, without knowing what’s going to happen to us, we don’t know anything, they’re playing heads or tails with our lives”. “Some people get so desperate that they swallow things, once I asked a gendarme something and he said, ‘f***ing drop dead in here’. I insisted on my rights, and they put me in isolation. The conditions are inhuman, it creates tension, and people get into fights”. “I haven’t done anything wrong, I can’t go back home, I’m Palestinian and they want to send me to Algeria, I don’t know anyone there, help me out of here”. Or “My fiancée and baby are here. We were going to get married. I work as a mechanic, I’ve never been in trouble with the police. My cousin went through a red light, that’s how I ended up here. My country is France and now they’re forcing me to leave. What am I supposed to do over there?”

Overall, one in two detainees are thought to be deported — 51.14% in 2005, according to an official record. Independent groups say this estimate is too high, perhaps as a way of underlining the efficiency of the process. “Some people are released because of an irregularity in the process, others because their country of origin does not grant them a consular pass, and a minority because they refuse to co-operate or get on the plane”, the centre’s commander-in-chief says. Others should never have been detained in the first place, for example people with French nationality or legal immigrants, who can be arrested and detained by mistake. The commander explains, “On average, they stay here for 10 to 12 days, and whatever happens, they can’t stay here for longer than 32 days”, as stipulated in the November 2003 law drawn up by Nicolas Sarkozy, which extended the maximum period of detention [4].

In the meantime, the detainees are deprived of their freedom and must submit to the orders of their guards and the twists and turns of the legal process. The arbitrary nature of their treatment is not because they have no rights, because they are entitled to appeal, but because of the complexity of the process, the contradictory strategies they can call on in their defence, and the difficulty of insisting on their rights. The centre might not strip the detainees of their human rights, but the laws governing it are labyrinthine. A simplified description of the process would be as follows. It all begins in the street with a police check [5]. If the person does not have valid identity papers authorising their presence in France, he or she is taken into custody for 24 or 48 hours. If this is not the first time they have been arrested, they are liable to be deported immediately. Otherwise they receive a deportation order signed by the prefect and are given 48 hours to appeal. They are then placed in detention. When the case is heard in the administrative court, the defence can put forward a variety of arguments such as family links in France, the length of stay, serious illness, or risk of harm in the country of origin. The lawyer Nicole Prévost-Bobillot, who defends cases at the administrative court in Melun, explains, “The defence plea is a gamble on getting the deportation order cancelled. It’s very chancy. One day I’ll be sure of losing the plea and the order is cancelled, while another time I’ll be sure of winning and the appeal is rejected. As soon as I can, I call the clerk of the court to find out which judge will be sitting. You weigh up your chances of winning differently depending on the judge. It’s bewildering to look at the legal precedents. Going back over several years of case law on deportations, you find just as many cases where the deportation order is overturned as it is upheld, with the same technical criteria. For example, how do you measure the ‘intensity’ of family links? Some judges believe it takes five years to form a bond with a child, while others believe it’s as soon as the baby is born. It’s deeply unsettling”.

If the appeal is turned down and the prefect has not been able to organise the deportation, he has 48 hours to contact the judge in charge of the decision whether or not to prolong the period of detention at the district court [6]. The judge can prolong the period of detention by fifteen days. If there has been any legal irregularity in the procedure, the detainee is freed. The detainee can also be placed under house arrest upon presentation of a passport, proof of address, or a letter attesting to their accommodation. The case is heard in public at the district court and the strategy is the opposite to the one used at the administrative court. Rather than arguing why it is impossible for the detainee to return to his native country, the defence states that he is ready to be deported and will wait quietly at home until they come to take him away. Marie Hénocq from Cimade explains, “House arrest means giving up your passport, and lets people go free, but all the elements are there for the actual deportation the next time”. Like a one-shot rifle.

If the district court orders the detainee to be held longer, he can appeal, but the deportation order is not suspended. This means that he can be deported by the police before the appeal is heard. At the end of the 17 days (48 hours + 15 days), the prefect can request the judge to order a second period of detention of up to 15 days. Again, the detainee has the right to appeal. At the end of the 32 days, if the prefect has still not managed to carry out the deportation, the detainee is freed. He remains an illegal immigrant. He has one week’s grace before he risks being picked up by the police again and taken back a detention centre. And the process begins all over again.

There are several reasons why the prefect might fail o carry out a deportation order. The administration must provide two documents: a travel ticket, paid for by the state, and a document authorising travel — either a passport, or, failing that, a consular pass — which is harder to get hold of [7]. Unless the detainee has already been placed under house arrest, the first thing he will do is get rid of his passport. He might claim to be a citizen of a country at war where he cannot be deported. Or he might gamble on the fact that the consulate of his country of origin will not recognise him as a citizen and will refuse to grant him a pass. Countries which have a strong tradition of emigration to France use passes to put pressure on the French government and vice versa. When Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, visited Mali and Benin in May 2006, he promised economic and logistical support to reduce illegal border crossings, in exchange for which he asked for “results” in terms of the numbers of consular passes issued. A few months earlier, on September 9, 2005, he told a gathering of prefects that “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched a procedure enabling them to discipline countries that fail to co-operate in delivering passes by limiting the number of short-stay visas granted to their citizens”. This measure was aimed at Serbia-Montenegro, Guinea, Sudan, Cameroon, Pakistan, Georgia, Belarus, and Egypt. Other countries are looked on more favourably for their co-operation, including Turkey, Algeria, Albania, and Senegal. To encourage countries to co-operate, the French government pays “administrative costs” for each pass granted. The policy is beginning to have an impact. Overall, the rate of passes granted (regardless of country) has increased from 28.75% in 2003 to 45.73% in 2005, according to a report by Thierry Mariani, a UMP member of parliament, published in March 2006, on the application of the law of November 26, 2003. There are blind spots over which the French government has little control. For example, Surinam has no consulate in France. The closest is in Belgium. When a citizen of Surinam is arrested, the consulate exercises its right to request to meet him in person. The French police cannot take the detainee out of French territory, which means that detainees from Surinam are systematically freed after 32 days in detention. Similarly, the Cuban authorities consider that anyone who leaves Cuba without authorisation is no longer a Cuban citizen. There are also a few cases, such as India and China, where the French government is in a position of inferiority. There are too many economic interests at stake to risk rubbing their governments up the wrong way.

At Le Mesnil-Amelot, both the gendarmes and the Cimade volunteers know all about these loopholes, which shift with the economic and political tide. To achieve the objective set by the Ministry of the Interior — 25,000 deportations in 2006 [8] — the centre’s managers make sure they follow the procedure to the letter so as not to compromise deportation orders. One of the offices in the administration building is given over to following cases. The walls are covered with hand-written notices for each detainee held in the centre. The steps of the procedure are carefully noted at every stage. When the detainee is freed or deported, his file is sent to the archives. The commandant complains about the working conditions. “When you are sent to work in a centre like this, it’s pretty unpleasant. We’re not trained for this sort of work. The guys prefer to be out in the community, but we’re shut in here, dealing with human problems and red tape. Actually, we’re trying to deal with the issues of global poverty. And we’re short-staffed. They’re strengthening passive security — fences, alarms, and CCTV — which means they’ve reduced staffing levels”. This is not without risk. He knows from bitter experience that this sort of security dehumanises the site and increases the risk of clashes. “At the moment, we have a Ukrainian who has spent 15 years in prison, a Tunisian imam, and an Islamic fundamentalist, all mixed in with the others. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory, they’ve served their terms, but it could lead to clashes. We also have problems with drug addicts. We don’t know how to handle them. We try to get rid of them as quickly as we can. We also have some who are mentally ill, people on hunger strike or who swallow batteries to draw attention to their case”. In its latest report, Cimade notes that clans have begun to form and that there are more and more fights between ethnic groups. The report’s authors note that the violence is directed towards the staff and in particular the Cimade volunteers who are accused of collaborating with the authorities. They explain this by the tendency to longer periods of detention and increasing numbers of detainees. The occupancy rate has increased from 72.82% in 2002 to nearly 100% today [9]. The commander acknowledges, “It’s true that we’re getting closer to the prison situation, but I was never trained to be a prison governor, that’s not what I do. We have cases where people physically struggle when we try to put them on a plane. What do we do then? Foreigners who have been here for 32 days already, who refuse to co-operate, who are sent to prison, then come back to the centre, and since they still won’t co-operate, they are taken to court in Meaux, where they can be sent back to prison, and so on round it goes”. He acknowledges that foreigners “still pay a double penalty”, as noted by the Cimade volunteers, who point out that “some people benefiting from relative protection have been freed on the order of the Ministry of the Interior, while others, benefiting from absolute protection, have been put on planes”. The commander is less forthcoming about the risks of mistreatment resulting from Nicolas Sarkozy’s policy of targets. He describes the deportation of 25 Romanians which took place a few days earlier. “Up at 5 a.m., with the consul, a doctor, and an interpreter. We filmed everything. It’s complicated when there is physical contact. Either we tend towards using force, but that’s risky and the media fallout can be catastrophic, or we try and make the person understand that they have to go. It’s a power struggle. The foreigner tries to play on demonstrating that the procedure between the justice system and the administration was null and void, and we’re caught in the middle”. Benoît Merckx, a Cimade volunteer at Le Mesnil-Amelot, sees things differently. “It’s more the foreigners who are caught between a rock and a hard place. Even if in theory, they are protected against deportation, like parents of children with French nationality, the Ministry of the Interior falls back on the principle of the separation of judicial and executive powers and the impossibility of interfering in the legal process, while the courts say they won’t be able to look at the case for another three or four months. In the meantime, the judgement has been carried out and the detainee has been deported”.

I left the centre with the impression that I had been blindfolded the whole time inside. Talking to detainees with a gendarme looking over my shoulder, circulars and figures used to stun visitors into submission, and not a word on the actual conditions in which the detainees are put on planes. I thought of the men and women suffocated as they refused to get on a plane. In the end, I obtained the information on how the centre was run and the possible strategies detainees could use from another source. I thought again of the young man I passed outside the gates. He wore an old shirt and trousers and he looked tired. He looked left and right, unsure of where to go. He had just been released, and his only baggage was a plastic bag.


[1After the period of official encouragement of immigrant workers came to an end in 1974, the French state sought to put in place procedures to deport illegal immigrants. In 1975, the discovery of a “clandestine prison” for illegal immigrants in Arenc, near Marseilles, led to a campaign to obtain its closure. In vain. For the first time, the 1980 Bonnet and Peyrefitte law authorised the use of force to deport detainees. On October 29, 1981, shortly after the election of François Mitterrand, a law was voted to legalise and organise administrative detention (source: Cimade).

[2The decree promulgated on May 30, 2005 sets out the conditions of detention. Among other things, it stipulates that “each foreigner is given the opportunity to communicate with whomever he wishes”, that the number of beds should not exceed 140 (there are 156 at Le Mesnil-Amelot), and that the centres were to be brought in line with current norms by December 31, 2006 at the latest. The decree also laid out the conditions for detaining children. An order published on June 7, 2006 lists the detention centres.

[3One right granted to detainees is the right to seek asylum from the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons, which then has 96 hours to come to a decision. However, it is becoming more difficult to exercise this right. A decree dated August 14, 2004, states that requests must be written in French, while a decree dated May 30, 2005, adds that the cost of translation is to be borne by the immigrant. This discourages people from applying. Moreover, very few requests are accepted. In 2005, 600 detainees at Le Mesnil-Amelot requested asylum, but only 2 were accepted.

[4A law voted in November 2003 extended the maximum stay in a retention centre from 12 to 32 days. In 1981, it was 7 days. In 1993 and then 1998, it increased to 10, then 12 days, giving the authorities a better chance to meet the conditions required to deport the detainee. At Le Mesnil-Amelot, the average stay is now 10-12 days, as opposed to 6.5 days in 2003.

[5A circular dated February 21, 2006, sent out to prefects and public prosecutors, detailed how illegal immigrants should be taken into custody and listed the places where they could be arrested — hospitals, operating theatres, drug addiction treatment centres, vehicles, association headquarters, immigrant hostels, at the prefecture, and so on.

[6The role of the judge in charge of freeing or detaining foreigners is based on article 35 b of the modified edict dated November 2, 1945 on foreigners living on French soil. The article 35 b, replaced by the articles L551-1 and following of the Code on foreigners entering and staying in France and the right to asylum, stipulates that foreigners can be placed in detention in premises that do not come under the authority of the prison administration if the foreigner has received a valid deportation order.

[7Deportations are very costly. The decree dated June 6, 2006, obliges employers who hire illegal immigrants to share the costs of their deportation. Their contribution is determined by an as yet unpublished order, and depends on the distance of their country of origin. When the decree was being drawn up, the Ministry of the Interior forecast that the cost would be between 5,000 and 10,000 euros per person. This gives an idea of the cost habitually borne by the state for costs such as plane tickets for the detainee and his escort, hotels, meals, and so on.

[8In 2003, targets for deportation were set for the first time — 15,000 in 2004, 20,000 in 2005, and 25,000 in 2006. On May 29, 2006, Nicolas Sarkozy berated the prefects, announcing “the number of deportations remains insufficient to meet our target of 25,000. Let me say clearly that some départements have fallen behind, for reasons that are not apparent”. On July 24, 2006, he exaggerated the figures by adding to the 20,000 deportations 12,400 cases where detainees were sent to other European countries and 23,000 cases where people were refused permission to enter France. He thus obtained a total figure of “over 55,000 foreigners expelled from mainland France” in 2005.

[9The desire to increase the number of deportations has led to an increase both in numbers of detainees in the centres and in numbers of beds in each centre, as well as the construction of brand-new centres. On July 24, 2006, Nicolas Sarkozy again described the project for expansion: “968 beds in June 2002, 1,447 today, 2,500 in June 2007”. He was happy to announce that the Finance Ministry had agreed to finance the development of deportation centres. The number of beds at Le Mesnil-Amelot rose from 68 in early 2003 to 156 in 2006. It recently began “welcoming” women. In an open letter to the Minister of the Interior dated June 20, 2006, Cimade accused him of “building ever bigger centres to be able to carry out ever more deportations, but also — and perhaps especially — to be able to make economies of scale to the detriment of the dignity of the occupants”.