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7 December 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:15pm

“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.

By Harriet Alida Lye

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.

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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”.