France: Court decision overturns government attempt to deny foreigners' access to lawyers in transit zones

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On 30 November 2011, the NGO ANAFÉ (Association nationale d'assistance aux frontières pour les étrangers) was brought to court by the Ministry of Interior in an attempt to halt the provision of free legal counselling to foreigners held in transit zones at Roissy airport (Paris, France). A press release has been issued denouncing the Ministry's attempt "to conceal the obstacles preventing foreigners accessing their rights in transit zones".[1] The judge decided, on 4 January 2012, that the Ministry's action was an impediment to ANAFÉ's work.

The specificity of transit zones

There are around 90 transit zones in France located at entry points to French territory, i.e. ports, airports and some train stations. Transit zones are based on a law dating 6 July 1992, and are limited to the area between "embarkation and disembarkation points and checking points". This scope has been widened twice at the initiative of Nicolas Sarkozy, as the Minister of Interior and then President of the French Republic. Since 2003, transit zones have expanded to include areas "close to disembarkation points", and places where foreigners are supposed to be brought for the purpose of legal proceedings and assistance (e.g. courts, medical centres).
In June 2011, additional modifications to the immigration law under the Minister Eric Besson resulted in the concept of transit zones being widened to any place where a group of at least ten foreigners have disembarked irregularly on the French territory. This can be at the same point or in different points not more than 10 kilometres away from each other. [2] Such "portative transit zones" can be open for up to 26 days.

Obstacles to accessing information

Access to information for foreigners is crucial, not least because transit zones fall under specific legal frameworks where the application of immigration law differs from other places in France. Transit zones are a judicial exception to French law whereby appeal procedures have no suspensive effect, except for asylum seekers provided appeal is lodged within 24 hours following the rejection of the asylum application. The possibility of a suspensive appeal came after the ECHR unanimously condemned France for breaching the right to legal remedy. [3] Still, this delay remains too short. Furthermore, asylum applications lodged by foreigners in transit zones are examined following a fast-track and often hasty procedure. [4]

Some nationalities are not even permitted access to transit zones and are directly sent back to their country of origin upon disembarkation, in violation of the right to seek asylum.

Fifteen associations are currently involved in assisting migrants in transit zones, following lengthy legal proceedings that challenged limits on the number of organisations permitted access. Ten of these organisations are part of ANAFÉ. Since 2004, ANAFÉ has been granted permanent access to Roissy airport's transit zone, where more than 90% of refusals for entry permits are decided.

Obstacles to accessing justice

Short delays, hasty procedures and constant obstacles by the French administration limit the association's ability to provide information and proper legal support to foreigners.

In 2011, the Minister refused to allow access to transit zones in Marseille, Mérignac and Nice during a campaign organised by the Anafé. One staff member of the association even had the renewal of her annual entry pass to transit zones refused, a decision which will be subjected to a legal appeal.

ANAFÉ has stated that:

"The resistance shown by the administration, overtly obstructing the defence of foreigners held and the observatory mission of ANAFÉ and other associations occurs in the framework of wider restrictions in France to associations' access to detention places for foreigners. This contradicts the European Union's objectives in this field since 2008". [5]

Despite the authorisation given to ANAFÉ to access Roissy's transit zone, foreigners are not systematically granted access a lawyer and are subjected to arbitrary decisions they are often unable to challenge. ANAFÉ therefore decided to ensure legal assistance at Roissy with pro bono lawyers between 26 September and 2 October 2011 in order to emphasise the urgent need for legal support upon arrival in transit zones. [6]

On 29 September 2011, the president of the Bobigny Tribunal of First Instance answered positively to ANAFÉ's request for a judicial officer (huissier) to go to Roissy airport's transit zone and establish the extent of foreigners' to access their rights whilst detained pending removal. The huissier was also asked to evaluate the obstacles placed by the border police force before ANAFÉ during their work to try and ensure legal support services.

Cast in a bad light by the bailiff's report, the Ministry brought ANAFÉ before court in November 2011, asking for the invalidation of the report and demanding €2,500 in compensation.

On 4th January, the Bobigny Tribunal considered, inter alia, that ANAFÉ's concerns and request for a huissier to assess the situation and challenge the Ministry's opposition to the project were legitimate. [7] The Ministry has been ordered to pay the ANAFÉ €1,500 in order to cover the costs of the proceedings.

This decision confirms the legitimacy of ANAFÉ's action with respect to national and European law and casts light on the ongoing, illegal practice of the French government to apply a regime of exception to foreigners in transit zones.

Previous posts about Anafé on Statewatch

February 2011: FRANCE-IVORY COAST: Anafé - Association nationale d'assistance aux frontières pour les étrangers: An inhumane reflex: France returns Ivorians to their torturers

July 2010: FRANCE: Report on the fate of migrants on arrival and following deportation

December 2008: EU: Joint press statement by Anafé, APDHA, Arci, ATMF, La Cimade, Gisti, IPAM, LDH-Belgique, Migreurop and Statewatch against the approval of the Returns Directive

January 2003: Argentine migrant dies during forced deportation - report


[1] Anafé (November 2011) The Anafé brought to court by the Ministry of Interior
Hearing on 30 November 2011.

Unofficial translation by Statewatch, Anafé's original statement "L'Anafé assignée en justice par le ministre de l'intérieur. Audience le 30 novembre 2011 Le gouvernement veut cacher les obstacles mis à l'accès aux droits des étrangers en zone d'attente"[in French]
[2] GISTI, Loi n° 2011-672 du 16 juin 2011 relative à l'immigration, à l'intégration et à la nationalité, NOR : IOC/K/10/03689/L (paru au JORF n° 0139 du 17 juin 2011, page 10290)
[3] ECHR (2007) Gebremedhin v France
[4] Anafé (July 2007) Avant-projet de loi sur l'immigration. Mesures relatives à l'entrée sur le territoire et la zone d'attente - Un recours suspensif mais non effectif
[5] Anafé (November 2011) L'ANAFE empêchée d'exercer son droit de regard dans la zone d'attente de Marseille
[6] Anafé (September 2011) Des avocats aux frontières ! Pour un accès aux droits en zone d'attente
[7] Court's summary judgment, 4 January 2012 and Anafé's press release (in French)

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