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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”.

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".