30,000 illegal immigrants removed from France in 2008
French immigration minister Brice Hortefeux hailed as a success today the removal of close to 30,000 illegal migrants from France last year, but civil rights groups branded his policies inhumane.
Mr Hortefeux, a close friend of president Nicolas Sarkozy, says his policies allow France to choose which migrants it hosts, but human rights campaigners say the reality is a repressive strategy designed to appeal to right-wing voters.
"Yes, I am proud of ensuring that the laws of my country are respected and applied," Mr Hortefeux told a news conference when asked whether he was proud to have exceeded Sarkozy's controversial expulsions target.
Mr Sarkozy, who as interior minister before he was president took a tough approach to security issues, had asked Mr Hortefeux to ensure at least 26,000 illegal migrants were removed from mainland France in 2008.
Mr Hortefeux said the figure achieved was 29,796, up 29 pe rcent compared with 2007. Two thirds were expulsions while one third were "voluntary returns" in which migrants were persuaded to go home with a small amount of money to help them.
Rights activists say the 26,000 target was arbitrary and it put pressure on police, immigration officers and other state officials to use tougher and tougher tactics.
"From our point of view, the policies implemented have mostly contributed to reinforcing repressive measures," said nine organisations active in the field.
They recalled the torching by detainees of France's biggest detention centre for migrants awaiting expulsion, at Vincennes just outside Paris, on June 22nd last year.
"A consequence of the obsession with the expulsions target, the revolt of the illegal migrants detained at Vincennes is the symbol of the daily misery inflicted by the state on tens of thousands of migrants," the civil rights groups said.
They called for a change of course when Mr Hortefeux leaves the immigration ministry. He is widely expected to take on a new portfolio in a cabinet reshuffle later this week. He has even been tipped as a possible prime minister in the future.
"With one eye fixed on the opinion polls and a direct line to the presidency, Brice Hortefeux can now continue his career. The challenge of migration, meanwhile, has not been met by France or by Europe," said France Terre d'Asile, which defends the rights of asylum seekers.
In what appeared to be a valedictory news conference as immigration minister, Hortefeux defended his record, saying his basic principles on immigration policy had been adopted by the European Union in the form of a pact signed in October.
He also recalled that he had travelled 22 times to Africa and had signed bilateral agreements with eight African countries which agreed to cooperate with France in combating illegal migration in return for support for development projects.
None of these arguments swayed human rights groups.
"The minister put serious pressure on African countries to sign deals under which they accept more easily the return of their nationals," said the joint statement from the nine groups.
"As for the famous European pact ... it contains no new orientation apart from the prospect of increasing funding to the security apparatus," it said.