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(Paris) - The French parliament should reject measures in an omnibus immigration bill that appear to target Roma and weaken migrants rights, Human Rights Watch said today.  The National Assembly is due to begin debating the government-sponsored bill on September 28, 2010.

The bill, whose ostensible purpose is to transpose three European Union directives, contains last-minute government amendments that would widen the grounds for expelling EU citizens to include abusing France's welfare system, profiting from begging by others, and abusive occupation of land.  The timing and focus of the amendments, and statements by government ministers, strongly suggest that the measure is aimed at the Roma.

"It is shocking that the French government is pushing for measures that clearly target Roma at a time when the European Commission is threatening legal action over France's expulsion of Roma this summer," said Judith Sunderland, senior researcher on Western Europe at Human Rights Watch.  "It smacks of a populist move at the expense of the most discriminated against and vulnerable people in Europe today."

The bill also provides for:

  • Creating ad hoc, floating transit zones for detaining groups of recent arrivals;
  • Withdrawing acquired citizenship upon conviction for certain crimes;
  • Reducing the rights of detained migrants; and
  • Tougher rules for asylum seekers applying at the border, without introducing suspensive appeals in the "priority" asylum procedure.

As drafted, the bill would make it possible to expel EU citizens whose stay in France constitutes "an abuse of rights," such as those who renew three-month stays for the purpose of staying in France even though they do not fulfill the requirements for long-term stay, and those who stay in France with the purpose of benefitting from the welfare system, particularly emergency housing.  The measure would be applicable to EU citizens in France for less than three months.

Immigration Minister Eric Besson announced the last-minute amendments during an August 30 press conference in which Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux made a point of singling out an increase in crimes committed by Romanians in Paris over the last year and a half.  Claiming the government was not stigmatizing any particular group, Hortefeux said "any citizen can see [the reality]...of women and children spending entire days begging in appalling conditions in order to take their haul to the people who are exploiting them."

Under EU freedom of movement regulations, EU citizens may stay in another EU country for up to three months without conditions.  Long-term stay requires that individuals are employed, self-employed, or have sufficient means to support themselves without becoming a burden on the host country's welfare system. But the main 2004 EU directive on freedom of movement explicitly states that expulsion should not be the "automatic consequence of...recourse to the social assistance system of the host Member State."

The bill would also expand powers to expel foreigners deemed to pose a threat to public order, including those liable to prosecution for certain crimes, including drug trafficking, human trafficking, profiting from prostitution by others, exploitation of begging, certain kinds of aggravated theft, and abusive occupation of land under the terms of a 2000 law regulating sites for gens de voyage (the French community known as "travelers").

The EU law on freedom of movement allows removal of EU citizens who represent a "genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society."  This high threshold has been confirmed by the European Court of Justice. In late August, a court in Lille rejected the French government's argument that living in an unauthorized settlement justified expulsion on public security grounds.

"Calling organized begging and setting up makeshift homes on public or private land serious threat to public order just plays on fear and prejudice against Roma," Sunderland said.  "Parliament should scrap these provisions."

The immigration bill will be debated against the backdrop of a highly publicized campaign over the summer to dismantle informal Roma settlements and expel from France Roma from Romania and Bulgaria.  According to government figures, 1,700 Romanians and Bulgarians will have been expelled between July 28 and the end of September.  In keeping with a plan to dismantle 300 unauthorized camps by the end of the year, authorities had evicted Roma from at least 128 camps by the end of August. Throughout last year, only 580 citizens of all other EU countries combined were expelled, according to official statistics.

The European Commission is expected to decide soon whether France violated EU laws on freedom of movement and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. There are serious concerns that the removals, many of which the government claims were "voluntary" upon cash payments, did not respect procedural safeguards, including the requirement to assess the individual's personal circumstances, the proportionality of an expulsion order, and the ability to challenge the decision in court. The bill before Parliament does not explicitly require authorities to conduct such assessments when determining to remove an EU citizen.

More troubling provisions
The bill would also empower the government to create ad hoc "transit zones" for the purpose of legally detaining and fast-tracking the asylum claims of a group of ten or more foreigners who have entered France without passing through an established border entry. In January, a group of over 100 asylum seekers arrived in Corsica by boat. French authorities were forced to release them after judges ruled their detention unlawful. Transit zones, which already exist at border points and airports in France, are based on a legal fiction that allows the government to treat an individual as if he or she is still outside the country. Individuals detained in transit zones have fewer rights and are subject to speedy deportations.

Human Rights Watch research has documented how unaccompanied children detained in transit zones in France are held jointly with adults and deported to countries they merely traveled through or to their countries of origin without any consideration of whether their families or child protection services are able to care for them upon return.

Human Rights Watch said that the bill would make the detention of asylum seekers and fast-track examination of their claims more common and also give the authorities too much latitude to decide when those detained in a transit zone are notified of, and may begin to exercise, their rights.  The EU Returns Directive allows EU countries to suspend immigration detention rules for a limited time only where an "exceptionally large number" of irregular migrants places an "unforeseen heavy burden" on authorities.

"Existing transit zones are already a disaster zone when it comes to rights, especially for unaccompanied children and asylum seekers," said Sunderland. "Creating portable zones will just make it harder for them to get the protection they need."

The only article of the draft legislation dealing with asylum procedures is designed to clarify the basis for rejecting an individual's request to enter France in order to apply for asylum. The bill does not remedy the lack of a suspensive appeal for asylum seekers on French territory whose claims are processed under the accelerated "priority procedure", despite recent recommendations from the UN Committee against Torture and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and several amendments proposed by both opposition parties and a deputy from Sarkozy's ruling party, the UMP.  Human Rights Watch has been campaigning with Amnesty International France and ACAT France for the reform of the priority procedure.

In response to rioting in Grenoble in July which saw police officers come under gunfire, the government amended the draft legislation to allow for withdrawal of citizenship from individuals convicted of voluntary or involuntary homicide of public officials, including law enforcement officers, firefighters, and judges. French law already provides for naturalized citizens to be stripped of French citizenship if convicted of a crime against the fundamental interests of the nation or an act of terrorism. This facilitates subsequent expulsion to their country of citizenship by birth, where they may never have had or no longer have strong social or family ties.

The bill would also delay the review of immigration detention by a specialized judge from the current 48 hours to five days, limit the scope of the review, increase maximum detention pending deportation from 32 to 45 days, and allow for those expelled from France to be banned for up to five years from returning to France and any of the other 24 countries covered by the "Schengen" agreement on free movement.

National rights groups and the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights have warned that all of these provisions are likely to lead to rights violations. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights expressed his concern that bans on return to the Schengen area could seriously affect the possibility of those in need of asylum to seek protection in Europe.

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