France: A Brief History of Detention (vom 18.07.2009),
URL:, besucht am 22.06.2024

[18. Jul 2009]

France: A Brief History of Detention

These days, in France and largely around Europe, migrants can be detained without consultation of the judicial powers. This renders it possible for an administrative authority to ignore and block the liberties of men, women and even children without judicial obligation. This is what is known as administrative detention.

This tool of repression is essential to the current politics relating to the hunt of illegal immigrants. Although detention has been considered since the 1980s as 'normal procedure' concerning the expulsion of illegals, it constitutes an exception to French rights. Prior to this 'normalisation', reached because of heavy ideological lobbying, the detention of migrants was, during the 1970s, the subject of unanimous objection by human rights activists and leftist parties.

Since, every party in power, right or left, have reinforced these exceptionary rights, particularly by increasing the maximum time period of detention. During which period, humanitarian and human rights organisations have frequently been reduced to criticising living conditions and rights within the detention centres. Increasingly rare are thier voices heared, and increaingly weak are are the echos resonating in public opinion when denouncing the system of detention on the simple argument that nobody should be detained without a judicial hearing; or by using the obvious argument that no human being should be considered indesireable, and should therefore not have their rights crushed purely because of their place of birth, of being 'foreign'.

The Scandal of the Arenc detention centre

In April 1975, some journalists and lawyers were the first to denounce the « illegal prison » put into place by the police, in a hanger of the port of Arenc, in Marseille. Within this hanger, since 1964, had migrants been imprisoned, with a view to their deportation. This first public criticism of the « police run prison » was fundamentally based on rights. On France's liberation, in 1945, legislators reversed the law of 1938 which autorised the internment of foreigners with a view to their deportation. Therefore, in Arenc foreigners were detained in complete illegality, on a simple administrative decision by the police, without being informed of a reason for their detention, and without the consideration of a judicial authority. The government then attempted to legigitimate, before finally trying to render such a form of internment legal. These attempts succeded when the law of Peyrefitte was passed in 1981 named « Security and Liberty », which would legalise and organise ad
ministrative detention. At the time, the maximum duration of detention was was 7 days. This law didn't consider the future construction of detention centres or smaller camps destined for foreigners. As this law didn't forsee the construction of premises or detention centres for foreigners, the sans papers were locked up until 1984 in administration buildings not forseen for this purpose.

The socialist party participated in the criticism of Arenc in 1974, through the voices of its responsibles and also because of the bias of its militants implicated in associations to help migrants. However, far from reversing the law of Peyrefitte, the Mitterand government decided upon the creation of « detention » centres in the country's main cities. The genral framework of detention was then put into place. The following governments, of 1993 to 1998 would, with each legislative change, reinforce the framework by increasing the maximum time period of detention, by changing from 7 to 10 days, then to 12 days. In 2003, the law known as « Sarkozy » continued the process by futher increasing the maximum period of detention to 32 days. During this period, the number-politics became a reality with the deportation targets consistently increasing the numbers deported (from 15 000 in 2004 to 25 000 in 2008. To achieve this, the capacity of detention centres increased, growing from 786 places in 2002 to 1 443 in today, between 24 CRAs (administrative detention centres). And the stance taken by the government is the will to continue the construction of new camps. Along with these detention centres must the smaller centres be added. It is these centres that can implement anywhere by a simple prefectorial decision and are supposed to « welcome » migrants in an irregular situation prior to their passage before a Judge of liberties and detention (JLD). We have therefore, over 30 years, passed from a situation of one illegal prison condemned by the general public and defenders of human rights, to a France of camps, where an exceptional treatment, a parallel set of rights exists for one part of the population, migrants.

Back to the present

Not a week goes by without innumerous group of authorised monitors condemning the abuses from the administration (regular beatings, taser use, psychological torture...). It must be understood that, far from being abuses, these are « normal » occurances in an « abnormal » system. These happenings are the norm within a system which ignores the fundamental rights of an imprisonned person. It misses the point to focus on the individuals who are responsible for these crimes, as it must be understood that these crimes are direct consequences of the camp system (like the Zimbardo affair, on the interrogator-torturers of Abu Grhaib). Far from losing speed, the camp system is in complete expansion. Today, Europe wants to agree upon a policy concerning the detention of migrants. The projected law wants to increase the detention period within member states to 18 months. In addition to this policy, there exist camps outside of Europe, in Libya and Morocco for example, which are financed by the european union or particular countries that aim to prevent migrants from entering the continent. Of course, the question of human rights in these camps isn't a priority of the member states.

The aim of the governments is to render acceptable the system of detention which violate certain texts gathering dust (decleration of human rights, Geneva convention...). They call detention camps centres. They transform laws in their convenience, in order to make the exceptionary rights covering migrants acceptable. In short, they want us to think that there exists a symbolic border dividing nationals ant migrants, which would justify the unequal treatment. This ideological base is fundamentally racist, and should be combatted as such. The legality of the camps and the living conditions within them must be both questioned and condemned, and return the focus onto the institutional racism upon which the dentention of migrants rests. We must equally combat one of the effects of this detanment - the cutting off from the outside world - to uncover the situation of prisoners « exempt from rights ». The anger and rebellions of the migrants exists, even if the cries have difficulty penetrating the walls of these prisons.

Considering that nobody is illegal and so that the freedom of movement can be applied for all, the walls of the detention centres must be dismantled, as well as those in our heads.

Article from the COLLECTIF DE SOUTIEN AUX DEMANDEURS D'ASILE ET AUX SANS PAPIERS ( Translated by Nomade, the Calais Noborder camp magazine.