Sans mercy

Print edition : June 15, 2007

Nicholas Sarkozy's takeover as President has added to the brutality with which the French police treat illegal immigrants.

VAIJU NARAVANE in Paris

A small boat packed with 53 illegal immigrants adrift in the Mediterranean off the coast of Malta, on May 21. A rescue team was sent out to the boat after its engine failed.-

ON May 3, a Malian doctor, a specialist in AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), landed in Paris to participate in an international conference on the disease. She never made it to the conference. She was held at the airport by immigration police, taken to a detention centre in Paris, and kept locked up for over 30 hours. Her ticket showed that she intended to stay longer than her visa permitted, the police claimed.

She tried in vain to explain that in order to get a visa at all, she needed to produce a ticket along with proof that she had been officially invited; that the company which sponsored her travel, Bristol Myers Squibb, sent a ticket valid for a month; that her booking had subsequently been changed electronically; and that she was booked on a return flight only a week later though the changed booking did not show on her ticket.

"If I knew I was going to be humiliated with body searches in airport toilets, that I would spend over 30 hours in a detention centre, treated with contempt and suspicion, I would never have come here in the first place," she said.

France's new Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, described her experience as terrifying and absurd. Was it misplaced zeal, common practice or just bureaucratic bumbling, he asked.

"For every such account, how many cases go unreported? Can we continue to invite our African colleagues for scientific exchanges if we expose them to 30 hours of detention, to expulsion measures and all kinds of humiliation?" asked Christine Katlama, Professor of Infectious Diseases, who had issued the invitation to the Malian doctor.

Poor Bernard Kouchner. As Foreign Minister of France, he can only expostulate, not act. The country's new Foreign Ministry, as redesigned by President Nicolas Sarkozy, has been stripped of its power of granting visas. Visas have now become the privileged patch of France's new Minister for Immigration, Integration, Co-Development and National Identity, Brice Hortefeux, a close confidante of Nicolas Sarkozy and the brain behind many of the most repressive anti-immigration measures, including the setting of expulsion targets to encourage policemen to show more zeal. The target last year was 25,000. It is expected to cross 30,000 this year.

The Malian doctor's case is not an isolated one. At a just-concluded seminar on India held at France's prestigious School of Social Studies, researchers from the Jawaharlal Nehru Universiry (JNU) and other premier Indian institutions recounted the difficulties they had had in obtaining visas.

In a clear violation of India's sovereignty, the French Consulate in New Delhi now tells anyone who is granted a visitor's visa that they have to report to the mission on their return: non-compliance would make the probability of a future visa zero. Indian nationals should not have to report to a foreign mission about their movements when on Indian soil. It is the duty of the French immigration authorities to inform its missions abroad of the entry and exit of foreigners - a relatively simple matter in these days of high technology and biometric passports.

MEMBERS OF THE "9th French group of illegal immigrants" at a demonstration against President Nicolas Sarkozy's tough stance on immigration, in Paris on May 26.-DOMINIQUE FAGEET/AFP

A young Indian couple (M and N - their names cannot be revealed for fear of repercussions) recount the harrowing time they were given by the French authorities in New Delhi. They met and married in France after living together for a couple of years. The young man was employed by the Indian Embassy in Paris, which granted him a residence permit that was valid as long as he remained with the mission. Wishing to find better employment (embassy jobs are notoriously badly paid), he tried to convert his diplomatic card into a regular residence permit only to be told that he was being expelled. Not wanting to fall foul of French law, M returned to India in order to regularise his situation. It took him 14 months.

The French Consulate refused to recognise the couple's marriage, which had been solemnised by a French mayor. Getting married in France is such no easy affair and the paper work is scrutinised closely by a hawk-eyed bureaucracy. The French mission in New Delhi gave them the name of a local lawyer - the only one authorised by the mission - who would "investigate" their backgrounds and ascertain whether theirs was a marriage of "convenience". The catch was that the Indian couple had to bear the expenses. The lawyer in question took over Rs.60,000, for which he never gave a receipt. They had to foot all his bills - flights, local transport and hotel accommodation - as he travelled to N's birthplace, met relatives, talked to the priest who had celebrated their Indian wedding in Pune.

A bewildered M said: "We are homeowners; we have always paid our taxes, abided by the law. Plus we are highly educated - both of us hold double degrees in spheres where jobs are going abegging. We are the kind of immigrants the French say they want with their new mantra of "selective immigration". But at every stage we were humiliated, made to feel unwelcome. At one point we almost packed up and decided to go somewhere else. But we have roots here now, friends and relationships. And ordinary French people are nice and friendly. But if they carry on like this no decent person will wish to visit France."

Other recent incidents come to mind. Last fortnight, a flight from Paris to the Malian capital of Bamako was cancelled. Passengers objected to the police's brutal treatment of a Malian national, an illegal immigrant who was being expelled. "They tried to strangulate him; they punched him in the stomach, rained blows on his head. We protested. We could not stand by and watch a man being battered like that," said Michel Dubois, a well-known documentary film-maker who was on the flight, and who was arrested by the police when he intervened.

The police in France now have a new strategy: they visit schools in order to pounce on parents who are illegal immigrants, when they come to fetch their children. French teachers and parents staged huge protests after the brutal arrest of a Chinese grandfather who was punched, handcuffed and driven away as four- and five-year-olds watched. A child born in France of immigrant parents cannot be expelled; but his parents can be if they do not have papers. This is happening with increasing frequency now, effectively making small children orphans or wards of court.

Nadine, an activist with the Reaseau Education Sans Frontieres (Network of Education without Borders), an association of teachers, parents and concerned citizens, said: "There is a peculiar dichotomy at play here. The same people who are anti-immigration in theory find themselves protesting when those being expelled are the parents of tiny tots who go to the same school as their own children - their neighbours, in other words. When brutal anti-immigration measures have repercussions on their immediate surroundings they become aware of the inhumanness of the practice of expulsions."

A picture that hit the front pages of newspapers recently was of 26 illegal immigrants from Libya, holding on desperately to the sides of a tuna fishing pen while being towed in the Mediterranean high seas by a Spanish ship, off the coast of Malta. The ship's owner initially forbade the captain from taking the desperate Africans on board; and they remained in the water, towed along by the ship while the three governments wrangled about who was responsible for their fate.

Sarkozy has in several speeches talked about the need for "co-development" with Africa in order to prevent so many people from undertaking the perilous journey across treacherous waters for a life of clandestinity and almost certain misery. But France has never ever fulfilled its pledge to give 0.7 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) as developmental aid. The French contribution has slipped to a mere 0.32 per cent whereas the contributions of Norway and other Scandinavian countries are at 0.92 per cent. Talk of co-development, therefore, appears risible to the people trying to flee misery and unemployment in their own countries.

The European Union created a new agency, Frontex, to tackle the problem of illegal immigration and police frontiers. But there is a growing realisation that unless the problems of poverty, lack of growth, corruption and bad governance are tackled, even the most rigorously policed frontiers will fail to check the tide of immigration.

So far, there have been many attempts at firmness and policing but few innovative or humane solutions.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor