Europe: From Fortress to Jail


10-02-08, 8:00 am

The hardening of French immigration policy, following Nicolas Sarkozy's appointment as Interior Minister in 2002 and his subsequent election as President in 2007, is not the exception in the European Union but the rule. Since the end of 2002, the 27 EU member countries have begun a process of 'harmonizing' their immigration laws. This convergence process seems to be headed towards the German model, which is far from being the most progressive in Europe, and on some key points much more reactionary than French immigration law. As a matter of fact, a European directive ordering the confinement (for up to 18 months) and deportation of undocumented immigrants has recently been adopted in order to promote an alignment with the immigration laws currently applied in Germany.

Leveling or lowering?

Several internationally-based documents exist which regulate the rights of immigrants; however, with few exceptions (on the right to shelter, for example), the European judicial framework regarding immigration policy remains quite heterogeneous. This is the case, for instance, with regulations involving the legal rights granted to undocumented immigrants and the duration of their confinement. The latter varies strongly from one country to another, and tends to rise in a northerly direction. Before the new EU directive went into effect, France had the shortest period of legal detention at 32 days.

Within the EU, three groups of countries can be distinguished: the first is Southern Europe (Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece) where legislation stipulates the shortest period of confinement after France: from 60 to 90 days. The second group is in Central and Eastern Europe (Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland) with the duration stretching from six to 12 months. The third group includes the Northern countries (the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, Estonia, and Finland), where laws authorize the unlimited imprisonment of undocumented immigrants (though, in actual practice, some cases involve a shorter duration of detention than in the Southern countries). With the new EU directive, however, the European norm has now moved toward the duration of detention now in force in Germany: 18 months.

Similarly, three distinct groups of countries can be identified in terms of legislation regarding the confinement of immigrant children: a few countries where the detention of children is theoretically prohibited by law (Denmark, Ireland, Italy, and Hungary); those where it is tolerated under strict conditions (France, in transit zones [designated places where rejected migrants are physically detained ED]; Sweden and Belgium for a limited period of time; Austria for those over 16; Spain, Poland and Latvia for children accompanied by adults; and others – more numerous – where the confinement of under-age immigrants is legal without restriction (such as Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, and Malta). Thus, in line with the regulations currently in force in Germany, the new 'harmonized' European regulations will be oriented towards the systematization of confinement, fewer legal protections against deportation, as well as a standardization of restrictions on entering a country.

Detention centers in and around the EU

The number of detention centers for immigrants arrested without legal residency has multiplied in the countries of the EU in recent years. Many of them are isolated penitentiary blocks, former military barracks, disused warehouses, sheds, even cages or containers (as in Italy), or floating platforms (like the Detentieboten Zuid Holland near Rotterdam). Within the transit zones, large-scale detention centers are also widely used. Among the most important are: Tenerife, Las Raices and El Camello in the Canary Islands (with 1,500 places each); Crotone in Calabria and Borgo Mezzonone in Bologna in Italy (1,000 places); Sandholm and Hvalsø near Copenhagen in Denmark (more than 800 places each); in Slovakia at Humenné, close to the frontiers with Poland, Hungary and Ukraine, and Vlachy in the North (more than 500 places); and at Caltanisetta in Sicily (500 places). The new EU member states, Bulgaria and Romania, have recently equipped themselves with similar centers, in particular at the Sofia and Bucharest-Otopeni airports.

Confinement centers have also been implemented on the peripheries of the EU. On the inner periphery, they exist in Europe itself: Rinas-Tirana and Babru in Albania; Zagreb, Jevezo and Sisak-Sasna Grada in Croatia; Chisinau in Moldavia; Oslo-Fornebu airport in Norway; Cheremetievo airport in Moscow; Padinska Skela in Belgrade in Serbia; Kiev, Lvov, Mukatchevo, Pavshino, and Odessa in Ukraine; and even in Byelorussia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia. There are more than 20 detention centers in Switzerland, in Basel, Bern, and Zürich. They are also found at the external periphery of Europe: from Morocco (Bouyzakem military camp, El-Aioun, Ras El Oued) to Azerbaijan (Goytepe, Lenkoran), from Libya (Kara military camp, the El Fellah 'camp of return') to Turkey (Istanbul, Kayseri, Konya, Silopi, Van, Yozgat), and Israel (Hadera, Ma'asiyahu Prison, Tsohar, and the Renaissance Hotel in Nazareth). There are also so-called 'informal camps,' like those along the Moroccan Atlantic coast adjacent to the Canary Islands.

Repression rather than justice

Many organizations for the defense of the immigrant rights (for instance, Migreurop), have criticized this trend toward criminalization of clandestine immigration, a threat aimed at all who enter Northern Europe without proper certificates of registration. Furthermore, it should be observed that the conditions in which undocumented migrants are detained are very often intolerable. Harsh, prison-like regimes, overcrowding, lack of privacy, dismal material conditions and substandard hygiene, the failure to notify detainees of their rights, lack of telephones, limited access to outside individuals (legal representatives, rights groups, family visits), impediments to communicating with the outside world (translators, lawyers), insufficient provision for the needs of the most vulnerable (children, pregnant women, the elderly, the handicapped), and a lack of adequate medical and psychological care are all rampant.

Over the past decade, the scandals which have arisen in these detention centers has shocked the public. Particularly memorable are those involving detention centers run by private security companies, scandals which occurred following the outsourcing strategy of the British Home Office, e.g. Yarl's Wood Immigration Detention Center near Bedford (run by the Geo Group, formerly known as the Wackenhut Corporation) – against which numerous complaints of racist abuse of detainees have been lodged; Harmondsworth Detention Centre near London's Heathrow Airport – managed by Kalyx, which was forced to repay the government for failure to provide an adequate level of service; Campsfield Centre near Oxford – condemned by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons for its abysmal confinement conditions.

Hunger-strikes, suicides, riots, and other forms of protest are frequently seen in these centers. Recently, on June 22, the largest confinement center in France (in Vincennes, near the building of the national police academy) was totally destroyed by fire in a general rebellion of detained undocumented, after the death of one of them in suspicious circumstances.

An additional source of concern are the activities of Frontex, the European agency which manages operational cooperation between the countries of the EU at their 'external frontiers.' UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Geneva Jean Ziegler described this recently created institution, located in Warsaw, as a 'semi-clandestine military organization.'

New forms of popular resistance

To confront this rising repression, new forms of resistance have developed. Perhaps the most impressive has been the recent, massive uprising among undocumented workers in France. Since mid-April 2008, a series of strikes organized by 'clandestine' workers has stretched across the country. More than 600 workers, mainly Sub-Saharan Africans, have stopped work and at times occupied their workplaces. The most affected sectors are construction, hotels and restaurants, janitorial services, and transportation and delivery.

The vast majority of the strikers have decided to join the CGT (General Confederation of Labor), the leading trade union in France, which is close to the Communist Party (PCF). However, the solidarity movement involves large portions of the French Left and enjoys widespread public support, as witnessed by the huge May 1 demonstrations. Furthermore, an important organization of French business owners, under intense pressure from the extreme right-wing Sarkozy government to lay off undocumented employees, expressed their desire to see immigrant workers legalized by the state, since they were facing persistent labor shortages because of firings.

As a matter of fact, in France, as in other Northern capitalist countries, the economic impact of undocumented workers is quite significant, both in terms of their contribution to economic growth as well as to the fiscal revenue. Nevertheless, systematic discrimination against such workers persists. One of the main forms of discrimination to which they are subject is that they contribute a great deal of money to the financing of social welfare programs, but are unable to receive any benefit from them.

The demands of the job market for a supply of cheap, illegal labor has been permanently fueled (in accordance with the needs of the capitalist owners) by a steady inflow of clandestine immigration, which, in the neoliberal era since the 1980s, has been almost constant. In this context, 'documented' workers (nationals or foreigners) and undocumented ones are forced into competition when searching for jobs, to the great benefit of the employers. However, actual repression, which rarely affects the enterprises, is fully directed against 'illegal' workers, who are arrested, confined and expelled from the country, and who are themselves placed in direct competition with new clandestine workers entering the country through channels organized by big capital itself.

Urgent need of solidarity

There are huge barriers faced by the immigration rights movement in France. The number of 'legalizations' of undocumented workers accepted by the Ministry of Immigration and National Identity remains restricted (only a few dozen so far). A lack of militancy by the trade-unions also tends to slow down the extension of the strikes to other sectors. Also, on the part of some undocumented there has been a tendency to file claims for regularization of their status to the CGT, without actively and effectively participating in the struggle at their places of employment – although it is certainly true that strikes in some sectors would be very risky and even dangerous for such workers.

Nonetheless, the positive aspects of the struggle far surpass the difficulties. Unity is being forged between undocumented workers and the core of the workers movement, which in France is massive and militant. This has been amply demonstrated in recent years: from the 'No' vote in the 2005 referendum against the EU Constitution, to the mobilizations against the casualization and precarization of labor in 2006. A solidarity front with the struggles of the undocumented has now been established in the French labor movement and among the broader Left as well. Added to this are the rebellion in 2006 by immigrant youth in the French suburbs against second-class status, the widespread struggle by homeless people for adequate housing in 2007, and the current mobilizations of 2008, which have included students, teachers, researchers, hospital personnel, pensioners, peasants, fishermen, truck-drivers, taxi-drivers, and even the gendarmes!

A key aspect of the current struggle of the undocumented is that it serves as a potential point of confluence between the struggles of working people in the global North and South. That is why the undocumented workers and strikers need our full and complete solidarity, in order to fight against their exploitation as a 'clandestine' labor force, as well as to counter the repression of immigrants in general in French society, and in Europe in general. Here, for all of us, is an opportunity to build a common front of labor against capitalism, which is destroying jobs and social welfare in the North, and imperialism – capitalism's external face – which plunders the societies of the South. This is the way toward a socialism of the 21st century!

--Rémy Herrera is a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research and teaches at the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne. Send your letters to