A Roma child sits on luggage after arriving at the airport in Bucharest from Marseille on September 14, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(Paris) - French senators should remove provisions in the draft immigration law that are incompatible with human rights norms, Human Rights Watch said in an open letter to senators today. On February 8, 2011, the Senate is scheduled to resume examination of the government-sponsored immigration bill article by article. The National Assembly approved the bill in October 2010.

The bill contains measures that appear to have been designed to be used against Roma. For example, the bill would allow authorities to order a European Union citizen to leave France for abusing France's welfare system, even if the person had not received any benefits from the welfare system.

"After France's summer 2010 campaign to dismantle Roma camps and expel Roma from France, and statements made by government ministers around the bill, this provision poses a very real risk," said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.  "Roma who are in France legally could be removed on a mere presumption they might one day seek social assistance. That is incompatible with France's obligations under EU law."

Human Rights Watch's examination of orders to leave France (Obligations de quitter le territoire français) served on Romanian Roma between August and November 2010 revealed that they were virtually identical, pre-issued forms with the names written in by hand. The grounds for ordering the person's departure were that the person was an unreasonable burden on the welfare system. But none of the orders included any individualized information or evidence that the person had received any benefit of any kind.

In response to European Commission pressure following the 2010 campaign,  the government included  last-minute amendments to introduce explicit procedural safeguards in certain removal and expulsion cases aimed at bringing France into line with free movement rules under EU law.

"The last-minute changes don't change the fact that this law unfairly targets Roma," Sunderland said. "The Senate should reject these discriminatory measures."

The bill also weakens the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said. It would expand the circumstances under which the government could hold people in so-called transit zones. Those detained in these areas have fewer rights even if they claim asylum, and they can easily be deported. Human Rights Watch research in 2009 found that unaccompanied children held in the transit zone at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport were vulnerable to quick deportation, including to countries they had merely passed through on their way to France.

The current version of the bill would also allow the government to detain foreign terrorism suspects for up to 19 months, including cases in which they had successfully challenged deportation on the grounds they would be at risk of torture or ill-treatment if returned to their country of origin. Senators should reject this measure, which violates the right to liberty, Human Rights Watch said, and instead improve procedural safeguards in the existing system of assignment to compulsory residence.

In addition to amending problematic measures in the bill, senators should support a proposed amendment that would ensure that asylum seekers can stay in France until the National Court of Asylum, the final arbiter on asylum applications, has had a chance to make a final decision. The right to an in-country appeal is a fundamental guarantee against returning a potential refugee to persecution, and the hallmark of a fair and credible asylum procedure, Human Rights Watch said in the letter. Human Rights Watch has been campaigning with Amnesty International France and ACAT France (Action by Christians Against Torture) for the reform of the priority procedure.