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Refugees Magazine Issue 101 (Asylum in Europe) - Welcome to limbo

Refugees Magazine Issue 101 (Asylum in Europe) - Welcome to limbo
Refugees (101, III - 1995)

1 September 1995
Many asylum-seekers never get beyond the transit zones at Europe's international ports, railway stations and airports, where they are held pending an initial assessment of their asylum claims.

By Francis Kpatindé

Ba, a young law student from Abidjan University, arrived at Heathrow Airport in London at the end of August 1994, after a short stopover in Paris. Immediately, he applied to British authorities for political asylum. Ba claimed that he had suffered repeated instances of police harassment in his country for belonging to an opposition party, the Ivoirian Popular Front, as well as to a trade union, the Côte d'Ivoire Student Federation. British airport police kept him in the transit zone, later to expel him to France, applying the concept of a "safe third country."

As soon as Ba arrived at Roissy Airport in Paris, he was arrested and taken to a transit zone. On October 15, he was sent back to London. Taken into custody as he disembarked, he only regained his freedom on 6 November, after an interview with an immigration official who at long last issued him a six-month residence permit. Ba could finally set foot on British soil.

Not all asylum-seekers are so fortunate, as the misadventures of a Zairian woman and of a Sri Lankan Tamil in Paris demonstrate. Both were asylum-seekers represented by the French refugee advocacy group ANAFE, the National Association for the Defense of Foreigners at the Borders.

Muana was a nurse at the Mama Yemo hospital in Kinshasa. On 9 November 1994, she arrived in Paris on a regular Air France flight. Notwithstanding what ANAFE said was a perfectly valid entry visa, the police considered Muana suspicious and led her to a waiting area. After various unsuccessful attempts, she managed to file her application for asylum with the French border police (Police de l'air et des frontieres, or PAF) on 11 November. ANAFE said Muana explained in great detail that her parents were long standing anti-regime militants in Zaire and she had followed in their footsteps.

On 16 November, according to ANAFE, the Direction des libertes publiques et des affaires judiciaires (DLPAJ) of the French Interior Ministry ruled that her asylum request was "manifestly unfounded" since "the applicant filed her application two days after her arrival, prompted to do so by a fellow Zairian in the waiting zone."

On 21 November, her wrists and ankles bound and escorted by three policemen, Muana was invited to board a plane to Kinshasa. She refused. According to ANAFE, a police officer slapped her across the face. Amid protests from crew and passengers, the police escort disembarked Muana and other deportees and took them back to the airport transit zone. A two-day truce followed. Then, on 23 November, Muana was expelled to Cameroon - a country she had not, in fact, transited en route to France - although her expulsion ruling stated clearly that she was to be taken back to Zaire. Since her expulsion, there has been no further news from Muana, ANAFE says.

Wondered one ANAFE official, "Did the Interior Ministry choose to send Muana to Cameroon rather than to Zaire, because there is only one weekly flight to her country - and another refusal to board the plane would have entailed her being set free, given that the 20-day legal deadline would have lapsed? Could the administration be sure that she would be well-received in Cameroon?"

Occasionally, expulsions turn into outright tragedies.

A.K., a Sri Lankan Tamil, left Colombo in mid-July 1991, according to ANAFE records. After stopovers in Dubai and in Italy, he finally landed at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on 9 August. As he had no entry visa, A.K. was immediately led to the waiting zone. But he managed to file an application for asylum.

A.K. received a swift reply by telex from the DLPAJ; his application was denied. On 17 August, police attempted - in vain - to put him on a flight to Sri Lanka. In view of the unusual state of agitation of this particular passenger, the aircraft's captain refused to take off with A.K. on board. A.K. went back to detention. One week later, according to ANAFE, stronger tactics were used to get him onto a Colombo-bound plane. A.K. was gagged. His hands were tied behind his back. Then, as a police investigation later established, A.K. suffered a heart attack and went into a coma. The Sri Lankan's dream of a new life in France came to a tragic end at Aulnay-sous-Bois, a hospital in the Paris suburbs, where he died shortly after admission.

Asylum-seekers trying to enter Europe are faced with ever more obstacles. As they confront one hurdle after another, their illusions vanish. Often, they get no further than a transit zone before they are expelled. Even the lucky ones - those who emerge from the transit zones - can look forward to a long process involving much more red tape.

Often, the hurdles arise as soon as asylum-seekers step off the plane, disembark in ports or reach international train stations. Frequently, asylum applicants are bounced back and forth from airport to airport. Their universe may never reach beyond the transit zone - where they sometimes remain confined beyond legal time limits - before they are flown back to their country of origin. Occasionally, as in the well-publicized case of an Iranian asylum-seeker who settled down in Paris' Roissy Airport - they may even spend a number of years in transit limbo.

The airport transit zone, or waiting zone - the term varies according to the country - usually stretches from the runway to the first police border checkpoint. It can include one or several areas where asylum-seekers can be housed, often with hotel-style services. Although only a few sample airports are covered in this article, nearly every country has such zones, and the type of reception offered in them can vary widely.

In mid-June 1995, the Geneva Coordination for the Right to Asylum (CGDA) examined what it described as a set of Draconian measures taken against asylum-seekers at Geneva's Cointrin Airport. According to the CGDA, asylum-seekers have been expelled from Geneva before the Federal Refugee Office could rule on their cases - a violation of Swiss law. In other cases, the CGDA alleges, asylum-seekers have been expelled from Geneva before expiry of the legal term of detention in the transit zone. Recently, CGDA said, a Zairian national allegedly spent three weeks at the airport awaiting an administrative ruling on admission that never arrived.

The CGDA points out that, on their arrival in Geneva, most asylum applicants have scant information about the procedures they should follow and the organizations they can contact for help. "This encourages arbitrary situations," one CGDA official says, noting that his organization has addressed a petition to the General Council seeking improvements.

In Spain, new transit facilities were inaugurated at Madrid's Barajas International Airport in June 1995 at a ceremony attended by government officials and representatives of UNHCR. Henceforth, asylum-seekers awaiting admission or expulsion will be separated from other foreigners who have been refused entry. With a capacity for 22 persons, the new transit zone for asylum-seekers has a lounge and a room specially equipped for children. Only a few days after its inauguration, these facilities proved to be too small when 39 Turkish asylum-seekers arrived at once.

The situation is quite different in Belgium and in France, major destinations for asylum-seekers. In Brussels, the Belgian Interior Ministry operates several centres, the best-known being Transit Centre 127, in Zaventem International Airport. It can house up to 100 asylum-seekers who reach Belgium's borders by air or by land without a visa. Those whose applications have been deemed "manifestly unfounded" are also put up there. In theory, the asylum-seekers cannot stay there longer than two months, and must use this short reprieve to exercise their right of appeal. Some human rights organizations say the time period is too short to exhaust all channels of appeal.

Detainees in Transit Centre 127 may be assisted by a lawyer, but they cannot receive any other visitors, nor can they make or receive phone calls. Should their asylum request be denied, the centre becomes a virtual detention facility, which they can leave only when they are finally expelled from Belgium.

Transit Centre 127 Bis, also in Belgium, can hold a further 100 people. There, authorities detain rejected asylum-seekers who nonetheless stayed on illegally in Belgium - such as those whose asylum requests have been denied on the grounds that they appear manifestly unfounded. Recently, three additional centres for illegal aliens were inaugurated at Bruges, Huy and Merksplas. In principle, detention in these centres is limited to less than two months.

Those who successfully pass their preliminary interview are moved to the "Petit Château," a transit centre in downtown Brussels, before being channelled to one of the 12 Red Cross centres scattered throughout Belgium. The "Petit Château" can accommodate up to 500 people and the Red Cross centres have a total capacity for 1,800.

According to Amnesty International, in May 1995 there were 78 transit zones in France - mostly in airports and ports, but also in international train stations. Three groups of aliens can be detained in such zones:

  • Those who lack visas, guarantees of return and/or sufficient resources.
  • Those who, according to the French Air and Border Police, represent a threat to national security, including people who have been previously banned from French soil or who have been issued an expulsion order.
  • People listed in the European Union's computerized databank as a threat to the national security and international relations of a country that has signed the Schengen accords.

In France, detention in a transit centre can last as long as it takes to determine whether an application for asylum is justified - or manifestly unfounded. The border police establish the initial file, which is transmitted to the Interior Ministry. Later, an official from Asylum Requests at Border Posts (DAF) - a department of the Foreign Affairs Ministry - interviews the applicant and assesses his or her case.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs then issues a ruling, which is conveyed to the Interior Ministry for decision. Successful applicants may then leave the transit zone and set foot on French soil - carrying a safe-conduct permit with which to initiate the lengthy procedure that must be followed before refugee status can be granted.

If the ruling is negative, the rejected applicant remains in transit pending expulsion - a period that should last no longer than 20 days. Applicants should be informed of their rights and obligations and, if required, should receive the services of an interpreter. Detainees may communicate with their lawyers or with any other person, and are at liberty to leave France at any time.

A decree of 2 May 1995 governs access to French transit zones for UNHCR representatives and the staff of other humanitarian organizations. The UNHCR representative - and the staff he or she designates - may be issued individual authorizations to enter the zones, renewable after one year by the Minister of the Interior, after consultations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The UNHCR representative may hold meetings with the heads of the administrative authorities in charge of border control, as well as with asylum-seekers detained in transit. These interviews can be private. The decree stipulates that UNHCR and the Interior Ministry jointly decide how frequently such visits take place - so as to permit "the effective exercise of the High Commissioner's duties with regard to refugees."

Organizations such as France Terre d'Asile, the French Bar Association, the League for Human Rights and Amnesty International are less privileged. Authorizations are only granted to five representatives per agency. Each may only visit the waiting zones once every three months. They may conduct individual interviews with detainees, but they do so under the supervision of an officer of the border police. No more than one representative of an organization may enter the waiting zones on any given day.

ANAFE officials claim that by restricting the number of authorized persons to five per organization, the decree could end up transforming staff "into traveling salesmen who must criss-cross the whole of France to visit hundreds of transit zones."

They say the restriction penalizes poorer organizations, which have fewer staff, and that it negates the spirit of the law and the parliamentary debates which preceded it when it was suggested that humanitarian agencies should be allowed a real presence in transit zones. Instead, they are simply given the right to carry out a quarterly observation visit.

An Amnesty International staffer adds that the decree "gives the right to an interview with the UNHCR representative only for those transit zone detainees who had requested admission as asylum-seekers. But foreigners sometimes find it difficult to express their request for asylum. Others may be trying to change their legal status. Any of them could benefit from contact with UNHCR."