A few kilometers from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, 240 foreigners are detained in the administrative retention center (CRA) of Mesnil-Amelot, where they will be kept before being deported - or released. When Rachid Temal, a senator and member of the Socialist Party, went to visit the center on Friday, April 26, InfoMigrants went along. Living in constrained conditions and a sometimes tense atmosphere, the undocumented people here count the days before they continue into an uncertain future.
Seen from above, the center looks like a prison. In the surveillance room, located in an elevated building, two Border Police (PAF) agents continuously scan images captured by CCTV cameras.
Downstairs, the decor is softer: red brick cottages with colorful doors surround large courtyards separated from one another by solid green fences.
In some places, the fences are reinforced by rows of barbed wire - a term that management avoids, preferring to call it "concertina". Because here, it’s all in the words. Evictions are euphemistically called "removals". As for the occupants of the premises, they are "detainees" and not "prisoners".
This is the administrative retention center (CRA) of Mesnil-Amelot, not far from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, where people who are not authorized to remain on French territory and are slated for deportation are locked up.
With 240 places, Mesnil-Amelot is one of the largest administrative retention centers in France. One wing of the building, CRA 2, is primarily reserved for women and families with children; the other, CRA 3, is for men only.
'I was born here!'
This Friday, April 26, the presence of Rachid Temal, senator from Val d'Oise and member of the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste, PS), does not go unnoticed. As soon as he enters CRA 2, two men call to him. "Sir, can we talk to you?" they ask. The parliamentarian suggests they go talk somewhere away from management and officials from the border police, which has managed the center since 2010. He goes into the offices of The Cimade, the only NGO located within the four walls of the center. There are only two employees there, responsible for advising hundreds of people, and they are often very stressed and overwhelmed by their work.
His brows furrowed, Mehdi Arafe spearheads the conversation. The 22-year-old resident of Seine-Saint-Denis does not understand why he is there.
He says he was born in France, but the authorities consider him a Moroccan
national. He is subject to a deportation order. "I went to school
here," he says, citing the Carte Vitale he possesses, the French national
health insurance card, as the only proof of his life in France.
Hortense Gautier, who works for The Cimade, explains the situation:
"Young people like him, who were born or raised in France but whose
parents did not undertake the procedure to declare [French nationality], we see
them regularly in the CRA."
Next to Mehdi Arafe, Hakim Bendjedai, an Algerian national, chimes in, speaking broken French. Cap on his head and children in his arms, he seems overwhelmed by what is going on. Having arrived very recently in France with his six-months-pregnant wife and two young children, aged 13 months and three years, he was arrested and placed with his family in Mesnil-Amelot.
Two days after entering the center, they appeared before a judge, who validated their detention for 28 days. Assisted by The Cimade, the family must now petition the Administrative Court of Melun to try to avoid expulsion.
'It's difficult to get diapers?'
In the meantime, "they do not even have enough diapers and milk for the little ones," says Mehdi Arafe, who has been translating from Arabic for his comrade. Hortense Gautier nods her agreement. Sitting at her desk in a small room with walls covered with thank-you notes, she seems to be the only worker the "detainees" trust, both for matters legal and of everyday life.
The men’s accounts jolt the senator. "It's difficult to get diapers?" he asks, trying to understand. "Yes, and wipes," Bendjedai adds as his son, wide-eyed and visibly tired, fidgets on his lap. The senator gestures to his assistant to take notes and get the name of the family, as well as contact information for The Cimade so he can “follow up on the situation."
Temal came here to see the living conditions for himself. He is a fervent opponent of the presence of minors in CRAs and a critic of the French asylum and immigration law – which, in particular, extended the maximum duration a person could be held in a retention center from 45 to 90 days.
In France, administrative retention centers are often criticized by NGOs: There is talk of police abuse, violence, humiliations and rights violations. In 2018, after an inspection of four centers, including Mesnil-Amelot, officials reported "deplorable housing and accommodation," a "lack of access to medical care," "medical procedures taking place under unsafe conditions," and a lack of information being provided to people upon arrival, including about their rights. All this takes place under the supervision of agents who "are not trained in the management of challenging communities."
Cameras and smartphones prohibited
A little shaken by the grievances of the first two men he encountered, the senator, attentive to every problem he encounters, continues his visit. The head of the center and the deputy director take him to the women and family area. Here, time is suspended. A slide and a spring rider in the shape of a ladybug seem to have been placed somewhat randomly on the concrete outside the building.
On a bench, several young women talk to each other. Two others, standing, leaning against exercise bars, stare blankly. Another smokes a cigarette, a coffee in her hand, while pedaling on a stationary bicycle. From time to time a voice sounds on the loudspeakers, breaking the monotony, to summon one of them.
"People go about their business as they wish, they can have a cell phone, or call their relatives via phones made available to them," says the deputy director of CRA 2, anxious to point out the difference between a CRA and a prison.
Still, the prohibitions are numerous. If laptops are allowed, it is only on the condition that they don’t have cameras. Smartphones are confiscated. Items of value and suitcases - often brought later by relatives - are also requisitioned by officials at the entrance of the center, "to avoid theft". People can, however, request access to these items.
Above all, travel is restricted: It is impossible to leave the CRA. It is the agents of the OFII, under the umbrella of the Ministry of the Interior, who take care of "shopping", among other things to buy cigarettes for the occupants of the premises.
Even so, the "detainees" are not completely cut off from the world: Visits are allowed throughout the week in so-called parlors. But they are very controlled. Relatives, members of NGOs, or the lawyers who enter are searched to prevent entry of prohibited items (ranging from razors and matches to packages of medicine - which must be delivered to the center’s medical office).
No access to laundry facilities
Bendjedai and his wife accompany the senator to their room. In the dusty space, the father picks up the his children’s dirty clothes, which lie in a heap on the ground, to signal to Rachid Temal that he has no place to wash them. The "detainees" are supposed to be able to do laundry in a room provided for that purpose. But it's closed. His companion, an embarrassed smile on her lips, invites Temal to come take a look at the bathroom, the cleanliness of which leaves something to be desired, and where the water runs "very hot".
This Friday, they are lucky. A policewoman in civilian clothes – in the role of "mediator" - has a solution for everything. The laundry will be put in the machine in the afternoon. The bathroom thermostat? "It's reported!" As for diapers, wipes and milk, she reassures the senator - and the family – that "everything was ordered". This visit may be the catalyst.
The couple, visibly uncomfortable with the agents, is perplexed. Temal points to the policewoman in civilian clothes: "It is to this lady that you must address yourself if you have problems." "They knew that!" insists the deputy director of CRA 2.
Scary places for children
For the moment, the four members of the family sleep together on a bunk bed. A simple mattress, already soiled, was added to the floor near the door. On top, a backpack and children's belongings are strewn about in disorder.
"We already offered to move them [to a bigger room], but we will not force them," insists the deputy director. Did the language barrier prevent them from having a more comfortable room? Maybe that, too. Throughout this morning, no Arabic interpreter will be present.
The austere living conditions worry Temal. "I was involved in drafting an amendment to prohibit the detention of children," he told the commanding officer of CRA 2.
The Cimade - which advocates for the final closure of CRAs - also denounces the presence of children in such an anxiety-ridden environment. "Like all the other detainees, they are subject to the noise of the planes that pass over the center, which leads to sleeping problems, but also to violent events that may occur during altercations between detainees or with the police", said Nicolas Pernet, regional manager of retention at The Cimade Ile-de-France, in a telephone interview.
This day, only one family with children is registered at Mesnil-Amelot. Since 2018, it has been mainly women - especially from sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe or Latin America (Honduras) - who are detained in the CRA 2 wing.
According to Pernet, they are often arrested when they arrive at Charles de Gaulle and are initially placed in a waiting area at the airport (ZAPI). After refusing to embark to be returned to their country of origin, "they find themselves in custody and are sent to Mesnil-Amelot," he explains. The commanding officer of the center implies that many of these women are linked to prostitution networks in the Paris region.
The fear of staying three months
Arriving at the space reserved for men, the ambiance changes. The assistant director warns: "The atmosphere here can be more tense." It is true that in recent months, the male area of Mesnil-Amelot has been under severe pressure. At the beginning of January, more than 60 people went on a hunger strike to protest their living conditions. A month later, a man tried to end his life by slitting his veins.
Management confirms suicide attempts, but it sees them more as "cries for help" and notes that people in distress can be followed by medical teams. The Cimade says that some people present "heavy psychological pathologies" and they have "nothing to do in CRA."
When Temal enters the courtyard, he is beset with questions and complaints. The detainees tell him about the shortcomings, their anxieties. They speak of irregular cleanings, a lack of food, the absence of footballs to help pass the time, televisions that do not work and their fears about remaining locked up for "three months".
The detainees all have different profiles. Some, the oldest, already have lives behind them in France, even children. Others were directly escorted to the CRA upon release from prison. One young man, very worried, says he arrived recently and has already applied for asylum in the Netherlands.
Multiplication of violenceSince the lengthening of the detention period to 90 days, clashes have increased in the center. "We have seen acts of violence multiply," says the head of CRA 2. The agents tacitly acknowledge that the extension of the maximum detention duration doesn’t serve much of a purpose; most effective expulsions are made in the first weeks of detention. The measure, defended by the government, is supposed to give the French administration more time to gather the documents required for deportation. But it is not "adapted to the realities," Temal says.
A man with medium-length hair and drawn features joins the men gathered around the senator. He knows the place: He has been at Mesnil-Amelot before. PAF wants to deport him to Algeria - a country that has recognized him as one of its nationals. But, he won’t budge - he is "Tunisian". He refused to get on his flight.
According to the commander of CRA 2, it is common to see men trying to gain time by changing their nationalities: "Some say they are Moroccans, then Algerians, then Tunisians ..." However, it is better not to play with the legal system: She says that failure to comply with an expulsion order can be penalized with several months in prison.
The 'hidden flights'
In general, deportations are communicated to the person concerned, displayed and recorded. There are some exceptions, the deputy director explains. When an individual "has already refused to take flights", sometimes the flights are "hidden". In these cases, the person is often "awakened by surprise in the early morning" and taken "by force" on the plane by an escort of the PAF, Pernet says, noting that these techniques "are not uncommon."
Sometimes, deportation is not feasible, either because the country of origin has not recognized its national, because the person has lodged an appeal, or because he has filed an asylum application. And then there are those who are released for lack of time. When the legal retention period is exceeded, the "detainee" must be liberated.
In any case, the proportion of actual expulsions is quite low. CRA 2 reported that fewer than 52 percent of detainees were deported in 2018, according to management. On the national level, the figure fell to 40 percent in 2017.
Note on the report:
Since 2016, the law has authorized journalists to accompany parliamentarians - who have the right to visit these premises at any time - in administrative detention centers. It was in this official context, during socialist senator Rachid Temal’s trip, that this report took place, on the morning of Friday, April 26. The management of CRA 2 and several Border Police officials were present during the visit.