Bienvenue en France!

February 16, 2005 — Review

Written by Tim Cleary

In a new book, an undercover journalist exposes the shocking treatment of detainees at France’s ZAPI 3 holding centre.

Conditions at France’s notorious Roissy holding centre, nicknamed ZAPI 3, have been exposed in book entitled Bienvenue en France! Six mois d’enquête clandestine dans la zone d’attente de Roissy (Welcome to France! Six months undercover at the Roissy holding centre) that was released in France on 27 January 2005.

The author, Anne de Loisy, spent six months at the centre working as a mediator and translator for the French Red Cross. Her role was to act as an intermediary between the detainees and the border police – an ideal vantage point from which to view the daily happenings at the centre. Although she expected to encounter some ill-treatment of detainees, she states that the reality was ‘worse than anything I could have imagined’.

The ZAPI 3 holding centre was opened at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, near Paris, in January 2001. It is where around 98 per cent of asylum claims in France are made and from where many rejected asylum seekers are deported. It was after two detainees died during deportations in 2002 and 2003 that the then home secretary Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to allow the Red Cross access to the site. Anne de Loisy started working at ZAPI 3 in October 2003 after experience working at the Sangatte refugee camp, near Calais.

The author gives a shocking list of accusations against ZAPI 3. We read of detainees being kept in cramped and confined conditions, and being woken up by loud-speaker announcements in the middle of the night. The sanitary conditions at the centre are shown to be unfit for both the detainees and those working with them. Some detainees are not given due medical and psychiatric attention when they obviously need it, such as a traumatised Tunisian called Mehdi, who managed to escape the centre, only to be found twenty days later. For detainees attending court at the nearby town of Bobigny, the centre leaves them too tired and hungry to obtain a fair hearing.

The poor treatment of child detainees is also uncovered. Prince, a 17-year-old from Cameroon, was stopped at Paris on his way to London for an operation. To determine his age, doctors in Paris examined his bones, teeth and genitalia. Despite the known unreliability of such examinations, Prince was judged to be an adult and sent back to Cameroon.

Some people are detained even when they have the necessary documents, the reason being that they don’t have enough money or – due to undue suspicion – that they have too much money to enter France. Added to these bizarre and arbitrary reasons is a refusal to allow entry to France for not having pre-booked a hotel room.

Worst of all, and most damning of the border police, are revelations of brutality and excessive force against detainees. One such incident was reported by a group of four witnesses, who claim to have seen a detainee handcuffed and gagged, and then lifted by his arms to be thrown into a van, his head crashing down on the floor of the vehicle. In another instance, a young Venezuelan woman claimed to have been subjected to an attempted rape. These allegations, added to countless graphic witness statements of injuries sustained by many – including minors and a pregnant woman – should serve to draw attention to the police’s employment of unsuitable officers, who are often poorly trained and lack sensitivity to the issues affecting detainees.

Equally worrying is the allegation that Anne de Loisy’s concern at the ill-treatment of detainees was met with hostile reactions from her superiors at the Red Cross, one of whom stated that he didn’t like having ‘activists in my team’. The centre is depicted as being under-resourced and under-funded, and one feels the author’s disillusionment at the Red Cross management’s inability and unwillingness to deal with such concerns. Denied the right to speak out about the situation, de Loisy and her colleagues felt they weren’t serving the needs of those they were supposed to be helping. In her opinion, ‘to stay within those walls without saying anything would have meant that I was becoming complicit’.

The book is an extremely important document that reveals the appalling and unfortunate events happening behind the closed doors of France’s chief holding centre. As a powerful indictment of the practices of the border police, it will be of interest to campaigners and organisations, as well as anyone concerned about the fate of asylum seekers. Hopefully, it will also be a wake-up call to politicians, the border police and the public at large, a call to improve the treatment of detainees in France as well as other European countries.

Translations from the book by Tim Cleary. Bienvenue en France! Six mois d'enquête clandestine dans la zone d'attente de Roissy by Anne De Loisy is 240 pages long and published in Paris by le cherche midi, price 15 euros. Included in the appendices is a wealth of informative material, such as a plan of ZAPI 3, a list of French holding centres, medical certificates, witness statements and details of French organisations dealing with asylum issues.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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