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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”.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game