Audrey from Gabon is being held at ZAPI. Photo: InfoMigrants
Audrey is pulling funny faces at the little girl she’s holding in her arms. “She’s not mine,” she says, and points to the girl’s mother who is sitting on another bench just a few metres away. “I’m just playing with her to pass the time,” she says. Twenty-eight-year-old Audrey from Gabon currently lives inside the four walls of the Charles de Gaulle airport’s “waiting zone”, or ZAPI, where people who have been refused entry onto French territory are being held while authorities decide what to do with them.
Audrey’s laugh is barely audible. Neither is that of the little girl. The loud noise of the aircraft that just touched down some 50 metres away from them have drowned out all the surrounding sounds. “The noise, it’s hard… It prevents us from sleeping, we hear the planes all the time…,” the young woman complains without even looking at the giant aircraft whose wings are now gracing the fence of ZAPI.
This tiny piece of no man’s land lies just next to one of the airport’s runways. “ZAPI is a bit like a protrusion of the international zone,” Alexis Marty explains, who heads up the immigration department at the French border police (PAF). In legal terms, the zone is not deemed to be a part of French territory. “It’s a zone where people end up when they’ve been refused entry into France and the Schengen area” by not having a visa, or because there are suspicions that their travel documents have been forged… Audrey, who’s been there for nearly a week, recalls how she was intercepted just as she was getting off the plane. She says she was placed at ZAPI because she didn’t have a "hotel" and "not enough money".
To visit France for a period lasting up to three months, foreigners need to fulfill certain conditions before being allowed to touch French ground: They need to have a valid passport, a visa (depending on the nationality), a medical insurance covering their stay, proof of lodging (hotel reservation or with family members), enough funds to cover their stay as well as a return ticket.
Ill-prepared tourists or illegal immigrants?
Foreigners who are stopped by customs officers because they don’t fulfill the conditions linked to their stay generally end up at ZAPI. "We don’t send everyone there," Marty explains, however, pointing to certain nuances. "There are confused tourists who’ve just prepared their vacations really poorly, and who’ve forgotten essential documents. But there are also those who have different intentions, and who produce forged documents to try to enter European territory illegally."
It’s difficult to tell an ill-prepared tourist and a potential illegal immigrant apart. This is why the verification is done in several steps. “We don’t send people to ZAPI right away, we first carry out an initial check. When a suspicious person steps out of the plane, we bring them into a separate room to verify their documents, to ask them questions, listen to their replies and to verify any additional information they give us. If all goes well, we release them after a few hours,” he explains. “But if the incoherencies and the doubts persist, if the person produces fake documents or no documents at all, if a ‘migration risk’ exists for the person, we place them in ZAPI.”
On this particular October day, the airport’s “waiting zone” houses a total of 96 people, of which one is an unaccompanied minor. The number of people changes on a daily basis. “Generally, a person spends four and a half days at ZAPI, so the rotation is pretty fast,” police commander Serge Berquier, who is the head of ZAPI, says. The maximum time a person can stay there is 20 days. Men, women and children – even minors traveling on their own – may be sent there. There is no age limit.
After a three-week stay, a so-called “ZAPIst” is left with three options: Either they are finally granted entry into France (with a safe conduct), they are sent back to the country they traveled from, or a legal case is opened against them (for refusing to board, for forging documents, etc.). In 2016, some 7,000 people were held at the airport at some point, of which 53 percent were immediately refused entry into France.
While “ZAPIsts” wait for their fates to be decided, they do what they can to kill time. They stroll in the outdoor space, they stay in their rooms, or they hang out in the TV room. The PAF makes a point of clarifying that the “ZAPIsts” are not “detainees” but rather “retainees”. This means that they have rights; family members can visit, they have access to catering services and can get legal and humanitarian assistance from the Red Cross which has a permanent presence at the facility.
“It’s not a prison,” Marty says. “Here, you can keep your personal belongings, your mobile phone, you can go in and out of the rooms as much as you like. The only restriction is that you’re not allowed to exit the premises.”
It may not be a prison, but it’s definitely a place of deprivation. Not all mobile phones are allowed, and those equipped with a camera are confiscated automatically.
It’s 11.45am, but no one seems to be around on the ground floor. The TV is on in the communal room, but there’s no one there to watch it. No one is using the public payphones which are available to the “ZAPIsts” 24/7. On the first floor, where the rooms are located, the hallways are more or less empty. “They’re most likely downstairs, in the canteen, lunch will be served soon,” a police officer says. “Otherwise they might be outside, in the garden, talking or smoking.”
The police presence is fairly discrete on the floor with the rooms, but every now and then the police officers can be heard calling someone through the loud-speakers that have been installed in the building. “We use it to call people who have a visit or a meeting. It helps us avoid having to run through the hallways to find them,” Berquier, the head of ZAPI, explains while showing us around the premises. “There are 67 rooms. Some are reserved for families, and others for people with reduced mobility […] There’s also an area reserved for unaccompanied minors and an area with games for them and for families.”
‘Things can be improved’
The atmosphere at ZAPI is calm, almost peaceful. Until Youssef, an Algerian who’s been held there for four days, turns up. He seems to be on his guard, and appears quite tense. “I’m still waiting for my suitcase, I don’t have any clothes to change with,” he complains and lights a cigarette. “The Red Cross is helping me out.” It can take several days for a person who’ve been placed in ZAPI to have their personal belongings returned to them. Checked-in luggage first has to be located and then controlled… During this period, the Red Cross does what it can in terms of clothing, offering T-shirts and underwear.
Marty finds the situation with the luggage deplorable. “It’s evident that not everything is perfect, there are things that can be improved,” he admits. “To have a suitcase speedily returned to someone at ZAPI is among the things where progress can be made.”
Audrey from Gabon and Youssef from Algeria, who have both found themselves blocked in this no-man’s land, have more or less the same story to tell. Both of them claim they came to France to visit family, insisting they did not intend to enter the country illegally. “But now, my situation isn’t very good,” the young woman says. Did she really come for the “tourist visit” she claims? Or did she try her chance at entering France by sneaking through the controls (customs)? It’s hard to know. The police have the same doubts when it comes to Youssef. “I came here to visit family, but I had a problem with my return ticket which didn’t match my visa,” he explains. Youssef says he wants to try to regularize his documents – “to buy a return ticket that conforms to the conditions” – in order to leave ZAPI and thereafter enter France. Audrey, on the other hand, says she has “given up”. She wants to go home now.
The PAF sometimes comes across “people who ask to go home because they understand that their entry into France is compromised,” Marty explains. The costs of such returns are normally taken out of the pocket of the airline that flew the foreigner in question to France in the first place, and is undoubtedly a way for authorities to sanction the airlines and force them to be more vigilant when it comes to checking their passengers’ travel documents.
The risk of failing an attempt to enter a country illegally is often higher for those who try to do so via air travel. “It’s an expensive trip, you have to pay for the ticket as well as the forged passport you need to fool the authorities, and this is before having to take the rigorous controls at the airports into account,” Marty says.
The nationalities of migrants arriving by plane are often different from those who try to reach Europe by sea or by land. “The people at ZAPI are mainly from South America, Honduras, Brazil, and Nicaragua. Also from China and Russia. Some also come from North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, but they are fewer in numbers.” On this particular day, the people in ZAPI’s courtyard are from Gabon, Chad, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and South America.
ZAPI also houses people seeking asylum. “There are people who demand protection in France as soon as they step off the plane,” Marty explains. “They tell border police […] Everything has been organized so that they know they have the right to demand asylum and that we’re ready to help them in their attempt to do so.”
Charlene Cuartero-Saez works for Anafé, an association that helps foreigners who have been blocked between borders, and which has an office at ZAPI. She almost chokes when she hears the “model” description of the facility that Marty has given, saying it is far from the benevolent place he has been talking about.
Cuartero-Saez has her desk in room 38 of the building, which has been converted into an Anafé office, Cuartero-Saez lists the different dysfunctions of the place: the poor ventilation, the restricted outdoor access, cameras in the communal areas, no laundry room… “It’s true that here, the material conditions are less difficult than elsewhere. Charles de Gaulle’s ZAPI is a bit like the display window for other ‘waiting zones’ in France. But that doesn’t prevent people from having their rights flouted, especially here.”
'Some are sent back just a few hours after their arrival in France'
“[Police] say that people are informed of their rights in their native language, but in my opinion that is not always true. Many [officers] work on the principle that if the migrants speaks a few words of English, he or she doesn’t need an interpreter.”
Anafé is also alarmed over the fast-speed returns of “ZAPIsts” – despite the existence of a “clear day” which normally gives a person 24 hours of respite at ZAPI. “This ‘clear day’ exists, yes, but you only get it if you ask for it! Many people don’t even know what it is,” Cuartero-Saez says. “There have been cases where people have been sent back to their countries just a few hours after arriving in France.”
The law stipulates that asylum request can be filed at any moment – and thereby suspending an imminent deportation. In those cases, an Ofpra official comes to ZAPI to carry out a pre-assessment of the person’s request. The interview doesn’t decide on the asylum application itself, but evaluates the pertinence of the demand. A decision should be made within 20 days. If the demand is rejected, a deportation is imminent. A person filing a demand for asylum while at ZAPI can therefore receive a definite response within just a few days, whereas the average waiting time in France is between two and eight months or even more, depending on the case.
“The aim of keeping [people in] this waiting area is to be able deport them, Cuartero-Saez states, and gives three asylum-seeking Sri Lankans who are currently staying at ZAPI as an example. The three men – all under the age of 30 – are in the courtyard and explain how they fear for their lives because they’re members of the separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) movement. All three have just been notified that their demands for asylum have been rejected.
They show their rejection letters while seated on a bench in the sunshine. They speak neither French nor English and they don’t seem to know what to do next. They’ve been there for two weeks now. “We told them that they can appeal the decision. They didn’t know they could do that, no one had informed them of that,” Cuartero-Saez says.
The three Tamils appear to be quite lost. They don’t seem to understand that they could face imminent deportation. In five days’ time, their retention at ZAPI will expire. “We don’t want to go back to Sri Lanka,” they say smiling. “We want to stay in France.”
Aja, from Chad, and her two small daughters are in the same situation. They have been held at ZAPI for four days. Aja doesn’t want them to be returned to Chad, but she doesn’t want to demand asylum either. “I think I had a problem with money… That’s why they’re keeping me here. I’m here as a tourist,” she says, but adds that she “would very much like” to stay in France if it was possible. Because of this deadlock, she and her daughters also risk deportation.
For those staying at ZAPI, the place is not synonymous with neither violence nor mistreatment but rather anxiety. At any given moment, PAF officers can try to force someone at ZAPI onboard a plane. “We have examples of people who don’t manage to register their asylum request in time,” Cuartero-Saez at Anafé says. “When the demand hasn’t been registered, the process is never launched… And so, without recourse, a person can be sent back in less than four days without even knowing his or her rights.”
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: ZAPI
Demanding asylum at the border:
The demand is registered by police and transferred to the French Office of Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (Ofpra) for a first evaluation. An Ofpra official then conducts an interview with the asylum seeker at the ZAPI facility. The point of the interview is not to decide whether the person should be granted asylum or not, but rather evaluate the pertinence of the demand. Ofpra then sends a conclusion to the interior ministry which takes the decision.
In contrast to the usual procedure, it’s therefore up to the interior ministry to decide – based on Ofpra’s pre-assessment – whether the asylum request filed by a “ZAPIst” is considered to be well-founded.
If an asylum demand is rejected, the asylum-seeker has 48 hours to appeal the decision.
How long can you stay at ZAPI?
In France, the law stipulates that a person can be held at ZAPI for up to 20 days. In general, after 96 hours of administrative retention, the judge of freedoms intervenes. The judge can extend the retention at ZAPI by eight days, which can then be renewed once more. It’s during this time that authorities evaluate whether a person’s asylum request is admissible or not. If it isn’t, the person is refused entry into France and the person is sent back to the country they came from.
Anafé, an association that helps foreigners blocked at borders, is available at ZAPI three times per week. They can be reached on: 01 48 62 83 62.