The court yard of the CRA centre in Mesnil-Amelot, near Paris, on April 26, 2019. Photo: Maëva Poulet / InfoMigrants.
The court yard of the CRA centre in Mesnil-Amelot, near Paris, on April 26, 2019. Photo: Maëva Poulet / InfoMigrants.

There are different types of detention locations for migrants in France. To help you understand the differences and what your rights are, InfoMigrants has put together an overview.

Administrative detention center (CRA)

These are buildings where all non-nationals are held while awaiting deportation from French territory.

This concerns the following:

  • Undocumented migrants with an OQTF (obligation to leave French territory) and/or an IRTF (prohibition to return to French territory, a re-entry ban). These OQTF/IRTF are issued by the prefecture.
  • Migrants who have entered the EU in a country other than France and have to return there due to the Dublin regulation which says you have to undergo your asylum procedure in the EU country of first entry.
  • Migrants who are under "Schengen readmission". These are people who have papers -- an Italian residence permit, for example -- but do not have valid papers for France. They are "readmitted" to the European country where they have a legal administrative existence.
  • Migrants sentenced by a judge (for common law offences). They are often issued with an ITF (interdiction de territoire français), which obliges the migrant to leave the territory and forbids them to return into France.

The maximum time you can be held in a CRA is 90 days.

The premises are managed by the Border Police (PAF). Some CRAs, such as those at Le Mesnil-Amelot or Vincennes in the Paris region, have hundreds of places.

Men, women and children (with their families) can stay there.

Within the CRAs, "detainees" are allowed to have access to associations that provide assistance to migrants, to a doctor, to the Ofii and to Ofpra agents.

Living conditions in the CRAs are often criticized by aid associations. Suicide attempts and hunger strikes are regularly recorded.

Also read: 'French administration makes me feel like a criminal'

Holding facility (LRA)

These are often "tiny" premises where people are held prior to the next steps preceeding their deportation from French territory. "For example, an LRA can be a room in a police station," explains Charlène Cuartero-Saez, a detention specialist at Anafé, an organization to aid foreigners at borders.

Generally, people sent to the LRA stay there for 48 hours before they are placed in a CRA.

The LRAs are generally found in small or medium-sized towns. "People are placed there when there is no room in the CRA, for example, or when the transfer to the CRA is taking some time. It's a kind of intermediary stop," explains Mathilde Godoy, a detention specialist at the Cimade aid group.

Unlike the CRAs, the LRAs do not provide the same access to rights for people in detention. For example, associations for the defence of migrants' rights are not allowed to be present on the premises, a decision that the aid organizations condemn.

Men, women and children (with their families) can stay there.

The opening of an LRA and/or its closure are decreed by simple prefectoral order. As a result, it is difficult to record them precisely.

Also read: 10-year-old Fatimate is 'terrified' of being deported from France to Italy

Waiting zone (ZA)

These are premises located exclusively on the French borders. They are intended for migrants who do not meet one or more requirements for entry into France.

They are people who do not have a passport (or visa), or do not have sufficient financial resources, or do not have accommodation (such as a hotel) or health/repatriation insurance. These are the conditions required for a stay of less than three months.

"Unlike the CRA, which follows a logic of leaving the territory, the ZA is more concerned with the policy of entry into the territory", says Cuartero-Saez.

The ZA therefore only exist at the French borders in ports, airports and international stations. They are generally placed under the authority of the border police (PAF), the gendarmerie, the national police or customs officers.

"In the ZA, you have even fewer rights than in the CRA because you are not really in France, you are in a grey zone, a no man's land that is an extension of the international territory," explains Cuartero-Saez. Generally speaking, the associations find it difficult to get in touch with the migrants held there. They denounce them as "lawless zones".

You can kept for up to a maximum of 26 days in a ZA.

When a migrant is in a ZA, there are several options for what happens next:

  • They can receive authorization to enter French territory after verification of their papers and supporting documents.
  • They can be refused entry to the country of departure (with a document refusing entry to the territory). Contrary to the CRAs, people in ZA are sent back to the country they have arrived from, not to their country of origin.
  • They can apply for asylum.

"Asylum at the borders" follows a different approach from applying for asylum on the territory: in this case, the Border Police must register the "application for asylum" and forward the file to the Ministry of the Interior. It is therefore the government that is competent to accept or refuse entry to France (by seeking advice from Ofpra). When the answer is positive, the foreigner has not obtained the refugee title, but a simple authorization to enter French soil to apply for asylum in due form.

Men, women and even unaccompanied minors can be placed in a ZA.

"Waiting zone extension" or "temporary waiting zone": These are annexes to the main waiting zones when there is overcrowding and not enough spaces. This is the case in Guadeloupe where the ZA has only two places.

"Temporary holding zones are often created when a group of more than 10 people arrive, for example, by boat on a beach outside the border crossings," says Emilie Pesselier, another detention specialist at Anafé. This was the case in Guadeloupe on February 22, when a group of around 60 Haitians arrived by boat in the south of the Caribbean island. The arrivals were placed in a hotel, which was being used as a temporary ZA.

ZAPI (Zone d'attente pour personnes en instance): The term is specific to the waiting zone at Paris Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport. It is also known as "ZAPI 3".

Also read: France: In detention centers ‘there are some who slit their wrists, others swallow razor blades’

'Shelter' premises

There are two of these, in Montgenèvre and Menton, both located on the French-Italian border. They are managed by the Border Police (PAF).

They are detention centers which cannot be called "waiting zones" as they are not located on France's maritime, rail or airport borders. They are located at internal land borders.

They are often located not far from the PAF and are small in size.

As with the ZA, migrants sent there have not fulfilled the conditions necessary to enter French territory. They generally come from Italy and have attempted to cross the border by mountain or by road.

Migrants placed in "shelters" are generally sent back to the country of origin within a few hours, less than 48 hours.

In theory, the rules there are the same as in the ZA, but aid organizations do not have access to them. In Montgenèvre and Menton, there are also frequent violations of the right to asylum, according to activists.

"These premises have no legal framework. They are not waiting areas. You can almost never enter them. People are locked up there, under duress and under police surveillance", says Pesselier.


Undocumented migrants who are found to be guilty of a crime can be sentenced by a court. They can therefore serve a prison term in France.

After serving their prison sentence, undocumented migrants are typically deported from French territory. They are taken to a CRA and then sent back to their country of origin.

Please note: A migrant cannot be held in police custody, in police stations, for the simple fact of being an undocumented migrant. Police custody only applies in the event of a breach of the law.


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