Joint UK-French charter to repatriate Afghans narrowly averted?

On 5 November 2008, Cimade announced that France and the UK were preparing to expel Afghan asylum seekers back to their country in a joint charter flight whose departure was expected from 11 November onwards. In fact, Afghans were detained and handed expulsion papers, and an Afghan consul was reportedly seen in the Coquelles administrative detention centre contrary to previous practice. There have been mobilisations in France against the resuming of these operations, which, as far as France was concerned, had ceased in 2005 because Afghanistan was not considered a safe country to return refugees to. There have also been police operations in the Calais and Dunquerque provinces that have exclusively targeted Afghans, in an effort to take full advantage of the "London-Lille-Baku-Kabul" charter flight (reportedly to be operated by Hamburg Airlines), with the 62 Afghans held in the centre de rétention administrative (CRA, administrative detention centre) in Coquelles due to be expelled.

It is particularly surprising that such an initiative should take place at a time when humanitarian organisations and the UN secretary general's office have expressed concern over worsening conditions in Afghanistan, and Cimade also criticises the operation as "contrary" to principles such as "the prohibition of collective expulsions", and as entailing "arbitrary, discriminatory and inhumane practices". The French organisation calls on British and French authorities to abandon plans to expel these asylum seekers to Afghanistan, where their lives would be in serious danger. It appears that following mobilisations, the flight may have been called off.

In an open letter to interior minister Brice Hortefeux, MEP Hélène Flautre highlighted the discriminatory nature of operations in the Calais region, where the Coquelles CRA was emptied of non-Afghan detainees to make space for Afghans targeted in police operations over the last few days. Flautre notes that French authorities have ceased carrying out expulsions to Afghanistan for years as a result of security concerns, and that most EU countries do not return Afghans in an irregular situation to their country. Voluntary repatriations to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran under the auspices of UNHCR have also been suspended, and many of those returned previously now live in makeshift camps without having been able to reach their villages.

Moreover, Flautre argues that the expulsions would violate article 4 of the European Declaration on Human Rights, which forbids the "collective expulsion of foreigners", as well as the trilateral agreement signed in 2002 by UNHCR with the Afghan and French governments, which stipulates that "the return of Afghans who do not enjoy protection... will be carried out in a gradual, ordered and humane way". She highlights the risks that the repatriations would entail as "irreparable", referring back to the recent case of an Afghan, Mohammed Hussain, who was repatriated by Australia and ended up being kidnapped, tortured and finally beheaded. Similar cases were also reported in 2006, with nine Afghans killed following their expulsion from Australia. France had also assured UNHCR that it would not undertake the expulsion of vulnerable people or those who come from regions in Afghanistan where security conditions do not allow returns to be carried out safely, a situation that currently applies to "most of the country", which is "under the control of Talibans or local warlords", apart from concerns over a possible winter famine.

Moreover, migrant support organisations that have been monitoring the situation in Calais and have been demonstrating against the planned repatriation charter flight have reported veritable manhunts in the forest that is close to the Calais Hoverport (from where ferries and hovercrafts to England depart). The préfecture (police chief's office) of the Pas-de-Calais district denied the existence of a "particular action targeting the Afghan public", arguing that the concentration of Afghans in the Coquelles CRA is a result of "chance", rather than an attempt to make the most of a planned charter flight. It also appears that "crimes of solidarity" continue to be applied to migrant support activists. Jean-Claude Lenoir of the Salam association was roughly arrested and held for questioning before being charged with insulting public officers, as a result of his involvement in protests and the monitoring of events in Calais on 7 November 2008. He claims that they included the use of helicopters and dogs by the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS, special police corps, often with riot police functions) and resulted in dozens of Afghans being held.

Jeanne-Pierre Alaux of Gisti highlights how Hortefeux is attempting to maintain an appearance of legality by suggesting that this mass expulsion would result from a series of similar individual removal decisions, until the seats on the charter flight are full. He wonders how many will die, either in similar circumstances to those expelled from Australia or as part of the growing list of 1,445 non-combatants who have been killed since the start of 2008 according to the UN, representing a "six-fold increase" over the last few months. Alaux also notes how the closing of the detention camp in Sangatte has resulted in many Afghans trying to survive by sleeping rough, hidden in the forest.

There was a demonstration on 10 November against the planned deportations, and letters are being addressed to French interior ministry officials to convince them not to go ahead with the deportations. On 11 November, Liberation reported that the charter flight deportations no longer appear to be envisaged, in spite of the UK's request for such an operation to be carried out.


MRAP statement, 10.11.2008; Exiles 10 statement 10.11.2008; Rue 89, Jean-Pierre Alaux, 6 November 2008;
Le Monde, 7.11.2008: 224.html;

Cimade statements, 5 & 7.11.2008; Hélène Flautre open letter to Brice Hortefeux, 6.11.2008;

Libération, 10.11.2008, Interview with Jean-Claude Lenoir, 11.11.2008.

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