The courtyard of the CRA center in Mesnil-Amelot, near Paris, on April 26, 2019 | Photo: Maëva Poulet / InfoMigrants
The courtyard of the CRA center in Mesnil-Amelot, near Paris, on April 26, 2019 | Photo: Maëva Poulet / InfoMigrants

Several migrant aid groups have called for the immediate release of around 900 migrants who are currently being held in French detention centers. Conditions in the facilities are completely at odds with the government’s new guidelines to try to halt the spread of the deadly coronavirus, the groups said in a statement.

Several French aid groups called for “the immediate release” of people who are being held in French detention centers. “It’s an absolute requirement, for judicial reasons as much as for health reasons,” they said in a joint statement published online on March 18. 

"As the country has been ordered into lockdown, the Observatory Against the Detention of Foreigners (OEE) is alarmed to see that people (men, women, children) are still being deprived of their liberty by being kept in administrative detention centres (CRA), administrative detention facilities (LRA) and waiting areas (ZA),” the statement read.

Last week, the French government announced a near complete lockdown of the country to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but few of the measures – including social distancing and limiting the number of people gathered in one place at the same time -- have been applied in France’s migrant detention centres. 

“The conditions in CRA facilities are completely at odds with the coronavirus guidelines the government has put in place,” David Rohi, who heads migrant detention issues at the Cimade aid group, said. "No one, absolutely no one finds it tolerable to be exposed in this way considering the context." Due to the coronavirus, Cimade has temporarily suspended its on-site activities in French CRA centres.

On Wednesday last week, more than 900 migrants were still being held in French detention centres. "People eat together in the canteen, the social distancing measures aren’t respected, and there are numerous interactions," Rohi said, underscoring the seriousness of the situation. "It’s a danger for detainees and guards alike. The virus can spread."

Risking re-arrest

Following the government’s lockdown orders on March 16, several judges in both Paris and Bordeaux ruled to release migrants whose detentions were due to be extended, saying such extensions contradicted the new health guidelines.

Others have been released because of the travel restrictions that have been imposed to stop the virus, making it impossible for authorities to expell failed asylum seekers to their home countries. “For one, because air routes have been suspended with countries they were supposed to be returned to (…) and two, because it contradicts the World Health Organization’s recommendation to limit the risk of exporting and importing the illness,” the aid groups said in their statement.

In Bordeaux, 12 migrants were recently released from a CRA detention center because they could not be returned to their countries of origin. Nonetheless the center continues to take in new detainees, a Cimade member who works at the centre said, noting that six migrants evacuated from a CRA center in the Hendaye region are due to arrive there within the next few days after having had their demands for release rejected.

On Tuesday last week, Guadeloupe closed its CRA center. The following day the center in Mayotte, which usually holds the most number of detainees, reported only a handful of people were staying there. 

But few arrangements have been made to aid the migrants who have been released – regardless of their situation. Their expulsion orders (known as OQTF in French) are still in force.

"Technically, this means they are free for seven days. After that, they can be arrested again," Rohi explained.

‘We need masks, we have to clean the rooms’

More than 167 migrants are currently being held in a CRA center in Mesnil Amelot, near Paris, and another 110 in the Parisian suburb of Vincennes. The detainees are getting increasingly worried.

"Every day, we tell the police officers that we need masks, and that we need to clean the rooms. We tell them we’re ready to do it ourselves, we just need the equipment and we will do the cleaning," a detainee wrote on an internet forum.

Meanwhile, regional authorities are said to provide little to no information about how they manage their migrant detention facilities in accordance with the new coronavirus guidelines. The French interior ministry has not yet responded to the aid group’s joint call to release the migrants held in the country’s administrative detention centers.

"There is clearly no political will to stop detentions despite the risks the situation poses to those who are detained and to public health," Rohi said.

To date, no suspected coronavirus cases have been reported in French CRA facilities.


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