France: inside the border
05 June 2015

If you glance at a border drawn on a map, you see a thin line traced between two countries. But if you take a closer look, you'll see there are actually people inside that line.
Visitors to waiting areas are few, so they cannot help all those who go through this trying time, they cannot always monitor that their rights are respected. So what makes our actions effective when they are, all things considered, so limited? It is the well-known Christian belief that evil fears the light and that it flourishes with ease as long as it is assured of secrecy.
Paris, 5 June 2015 – Around midday, Reporters Without Borders alert us that they have no news about a Syrian journalist, who was due to arrive in Marseille. I call the police, who let me know the journalist is being kept in the waiting area of the airport; he has not crossed the border yet. I go to visit him and realise that he is due to be sent back in the evening and that he did not ask for asylum. The border police hadn't told him he could do so… and he was waiting for Reporters Without Borders to turn up. I told him how to make a claim for asylum, which he did, and meanwhile Parisian associations sent the authorities all the data they had about the journalist, who was allowed to enter France the next day.

The journalist was one of many people who end up inside the border. If you glance at a border drawn on a map, you see a thin line traced between two countries. But if you take a closer look with a powerful magnifying glass, on a large-scale map, you'll see there are actually people inside that line.

When someone enters France en route from another country that is not in the Schengen area, he is subject to inspection at the border and, for many reasons, may be prevented from crossing it. One possible reason is that perhaps he hasn't quite understood that his documents – visa, return ticket, invitation letter – and travel allowance must be in complete and complementary order. More seriously, the traveller may have an invalid visa or a false passport, or even no papers at all. If in transit, perhaps the papers for his final destination are not in order.

Anyone in this predicament might end up in a waiting area at the border if he cannot immediately be put back on the boat or the plane on which he arrived, or if he has asked for asylum. There is another scenario too: anyone who knows his rights may ask for a 'clear day'. This is a 24-hour breathing space in which he may contact relatives and a lawyer.

The border police have plenty of discretion here. If they decide to refuse entry to someone and to re-embark him immediately, no one is there to observe, intervene, check or oppose their decision.

According to law, the border police may hold someone for four days until a trip back is available or the asylum procedure is completed. Meanwhile the "non-admitted" may contact a lawyer and relatives and receive visits and help from humanitarian NGOs. To prolong detention beyond the first four days, the police need the authorisation of a judge.

What do visitors from humanitarian organisations do when they go to waiting areas at the border? I'd like to share a few examples from my personal experience. One is that of the Syrian journalist, noted above. Here my role was to give advice in what amounted to crisis intervention. Unfortunately, however, NGO visitors are not always around to do this.

In the waiting areas, airline companies supply the meals. For more than a week, I visit a young African man who is fed morning, midday and evening with a cold meal. Who can withstand such a regime? I ask him what he prefers; he speaks of rice with a sauce, chicken, fish or peanuts. I leave the police post and return with a container bought and reheated in the airport. I ask the head of the police if he is willing to give the food to the young man. He tells the young guard: "Take it, but pass the container through the security monitor first." This simple gesture of humanity has an unintended outcome: it impresses the young guards, who ask me why I visit the people held there, and why I keep going back. The police captains call the units where the detainees sleep "rooms"; the young guards call them "jails".

Another time, I visit a man who has just come from Algeria and who has been found to have some inconsistency in his travel allowance. He is distraught, because the police tell him they suspect he has come to France to steal, and he is sure they will write "thief" on his passport.  I tell him he has no way of preventing the police from putting him back on the plane that same afternoon, and I explain all the risks that a refusal to embark entail, making it clear that the choice is his. I also tell him he can return as soon as he has the necessary lodging and money and if his passport and visa are still valid. He finally calms down because he feels he is no longer in a tunnel with no way out… even if the eventual outcome isn't what he would have preferred. My elementary role here is to explain the situation, all the ins and outs, without seeking to influence the man's choice.

Then there is the time when seven Syrians arrive in the harbour of Toulon without visas. They want to ask for asylum but in countries other than France. The police think they have to implement the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that an asylum seeker must make a claim in the first state of the European Union he enters. If the Syrians refuse, then there is no other solution other than to send them back to Istanbul. The authorities don't really wish to do this, all the more so since there is a witness… yours truly. We reach a "non-illegal" solution: the Syrians are authorised to enter France but their fingerprints are not taken as they did not ask for asylum, and they are given a safe-conduct for the country of their choice.

When you go as a visitor to the waiting area, you enter the human rights domain. So many examples: when it comes to the document of refusal of entry, the police sometimes take it upon themselves to tick the box: "I demand to leave again immediately". There is unworthy behaviour – "If you protest, I'll tear up your passport" – and even violence during embarkation attempts, "he bashed his head in the lift himself". Our role here is to detect, and to share with associations, those facts that need to be made public or brought before the law.

Visitors to waiting areas are few, so they cannot help all those who go through this trying time, they cannot always monitor that their rights are respected. So what makes our actions effective when they are, all things considered, so limited? It is the well-known Christian belief that evil fears the light and that it flourishes with ease as long as it is assured of secrecy. Even if visitors are not always present, they can ask to go into the waiting area at any time without warning. And repeated observations eventually do make their way up to the higher echelons, and they do end up by bringing about substantial improvements, in those places where many suffer and few can be at their side to take action.



Michel Croc, JRS France

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