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“Empty the Jungle”: Are French detention centres abusing migrants’ human rights?

Migrant retention procedures in France are costly, cruel, and “do not conform to the law”, according to a French human rights agency.

The population of migrants in Calais has doubled in the last month, now totaling at least 6,000. Adeline Hazan, director of the CGLPL (Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté), says that the situation has become “extremely difficult to control, both for the migrants and the public”.

CGLPL, an independent agency founded by the French parliament in 2007, is responsible for checking that all people in France who are deprived of liberty are afforded their human rights. The agency held a press conference this month in which they declared that the “current procedures of migrant dispersal do not conform to the law”.

La Cimade, a French organization dedicated to defending the rights of migrants, found this week that since 21 October, 1,039 refugees have been arrested in the Calais region. The migrants are then transported, by private plane or bus, to Administrative Retention Centres (CRAs) across France. According to the Ministry of the Interior’s webpage, these centres are designed to “retain foreigners subject to deportation for a limited period”.

However, a recent investigation conducted by the CGLPL discovered that the centres have been “misappropriated” since the migrant crisis began, and are being used primarily as a bureaucratic dispersal technique in order to “empty the Jungle” and “unclog Calais”.

The dispersal process begins when refugees in and around the so-called Jungle are arrested either when attempting to enter the Eurotunnel, or when they cannot produce their required ID papers. Though there is a retention centre in Coquilles, less than 15 minutes away by car (which the CGLPL investigation found was “never full”), migrants are instead sent to CRAs up to 1,000km away.

The refugees are retained for a maximum of five days. Though the purpose of the CRAs is to obtain the necessary paperwork to return illegally-landed migrants to their country of origin, 96 per cent of the refugees have been released into whatever town they ended up in, thus obliging them to make their way back to Calais on their own. 

Before the crisis, the national CRAs were “rarely full,” says Hazan, who estimates the capacity never surpassed 60 per cent. Now, the CRAs outside of Calais often go beyond the legal maximum capacity. The situation in these centres is “shocking”: on-site investigations revealed that there are often 13 people in shared cells of 11 square metres, not enough blankets for everyone, and limited access to bathroom facilities.

Bernard Cazeneuve, Minister of the Interior, released a statement saying that in a high-stakes migratory situation “the likes of which have never been seen before”, the state is responding in “a rational manner”, and using the CRAs according to their “national purpose”. Cazeneuve continues that this is a “global and coordinated response to a situation that poses serious difficulties”. 

Nisar Ahmed, a 22-year-old refugee from Nangarhar in Afghanistan, was arrested in November and flown on “a private plane” to a CRA in Nimes. “They say that we need to call it a retention centre, not a detention centre, but in fact it’s a prison. It’s exactly like a prison,” says Ahmed.

According to documents available online, the Ministry of the Interior signed an annual contract in October 2014 for the “provision of a transport aircraft exclusively for the needs of the national police and of foreigners in France”. The private jets continue to be used to fly refugees to more remote CRAs, like Marseille and Toulouse. The annual price of the aircraft is €1.5m, a cost that is financed by the state.

The CGLPL urgently recommends that this dispersal technique be stopped, as it is infringing on human rights. When asked what the recommended way of dealing with the situation was, Hazan responded:

“I’m not the minister of the interior so I can’t say what they should do. Our job is to make sure that the government’s actions are in line with humanitarian requirements.”

When discussing the staggering cost of this national dispersal operation, she simply declared that “the cost is not our concern – liberty has no price”.

NICHOLAS KAMM / Staff
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Blow-dried and supplicant, Ivanka shows the limits of the power women are allowed in Trumpworld

A new book by the US President’s daughter has surpisingly strong echoes of medieval royalty.

Exactly 500 years ago this month, the apprentices of London rose up, ­angry with Flemish immigrants and the bankers of Lombard Street. The race riot was quelled only when a couple of dukes sent in their private armies. Hundreds of looters were arrested and some were hanged, drawn and quartered. But some rioters were as young as 13 and the city’s residents felt sorry for them.

Henry VIII wanted to look magnanimous, but not weak. And so, at the trial in Westminster Hall on 7 May, ­Cardinal Wolsey first asked for mercy on the youngsters’ behalf. He was refused.

And then three women came forward: Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, and his sisters Mary and Margaret, the widowed queens of France and Scotland. Faced with three women on their knees, the king relented. “It was a scene straight from the pages of chivalry,” writes Sarah Gristwood in her history of Renaissance women and power, Game of Queens. “An intercessory function, of course, had been traditional for queens, from the biblical Esther and Bathsheba to the Virgin Mary.”

Whenever contemporary politics gets too depressing, I take refuge in history. I always hope I will gain some perspective from people whose problems are very different from my own. Yes, climate change is terrifying; but at least I don’t have scrofula! Yet modern life has a way of creeping back. Late-medieval Europe was full of resentment for “aliens”, for example, who were felt to be prospering at the expense of native populations, even if those tensions were often expressed in religious rather than nationalist terms. It was Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, who expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find such strong echoes of medieval royalty in Ivanka Trump’s new book, Women Who Work. I won’t waste your time by attempting to review this seminal tome, especially as it’s largely constructed out of bits of other self-help books. The advice boils down to: be “multi-dimensional”; don’t be afraid to use “architect” as a verb; feel free to turn down Anna Wintour, when she offers you a job at Vogue straight out of university, because your true passion is real estate. If it’s a busy time at work, as it was for Ivanka on the campaign trail, go into “survival mode”. (“Honestly,” she writes, “I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”) Something for everyone.

Still, Women Who Work gave me the chance to contemplate the point of Ivanka Trump. I’ve seen her far more than I have heard her, which is no surprise, as her role in the administration is largely symbolic. What is Ivanka if not a Renaissance queen, tearfully pleading with her lord to show mercy? She is, we are told, his conscience. When his daughter’s clothing line was dropped by the US retailer Nordstrom in February, Trump tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Two months later, her name was invoked again. The First Daughter was distraught – “heartbroken and outraged”, she tweeted – at the sight of Syrian children gassed by the Assad regime. This prompted her father to bomb an airbase to atone for the slaughter of what his statement referred to as “beautiful babies”. “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence,” her brother Eric told the Telegraph. “I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’”

This is the power that women are granted in Trumpworld: softening, humanising, empathetic. Their tears moisten the oak-like carapace of great leaders, showing them that sometimes it’s OK to be kind – but obviously not too kind, because that’s a bit soppy and girly and gay. Women are naturally prone to emotion, of course, unlike sturdy, ­rational men, who get so cross about the way TV news is reporting their firing of the FBI director that they start sending unhinged tweets implying they have incriminating “tapes” of White House conversations.

In this structure, however, the limits of women’s power are sharply circumscribed. The tears of both Ivanka and Catherine of Aragon only provided cover for something that their lord and master wanted to do anyway. (As New York magazine urged acidly on 13 April, “Someone Please Show Ivanka Pictures of Starving Yemeni Children”.) Ivanka’s whole book is designed to render female power unthreatening by making it “feminine”; merely a complement to male power instead of a challenge to it.

To reassure us that she isn’t some frumpy bluestocking, Ivanka has crafted an image of expensive, time-consuming perfection: perfect white teeth, perfect blow-dried hair, perfectly toned body. Her make-up, clothes and home are all styled in unobtrusive neutrals. Together it says: let me in the room and I promise not to be a nuisance or take up too much space, even on the colour wheel. It’s noticeable that no woman in Trump’s orbit has “let herself go”, even though his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has the complexion of a body that’s been found after two weeks in the water. I somehow doubt he ever makes “time for self-care”.

And don’t come at me with all that garbage about a nice frock and a manicure being “empowering”. Look at Donald Trump, the one with his own military: he has a fat arse and uses Sellotape to hold his ties in place. A president is allowed to have appetites – for women, for food, for power. His supplicant daughter gets to peddle platitudes about how you should “bond with your boss”. (Being a blood relative helps, although, sadly, Women Who Work is silent on what to do if he also fancies you.)

Is this how far we’ve come in 500 years? Ivanka Trump might try to sell herself as a modern woman, but her brand of female power is positively medieval.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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