In France, like elsewhere in Europe, some citizens are working hard to stop the deportation of asylum seekers. It’s not easy – but sometimes, they succeed.

Here, we take a look at two cases: how one small village successfully fought back, and how Parisians are going to the airport to try to halt deportations at the last minute.

Faux-la-Montagne, the village fighting to keep hosting a young Sudanese man

For weeks, residents of a small village in central France fought tooth and nail to halt the deportation of a young Sudanese man who had found refuge in their midst.

The village of Faux-la-Montagne, in France’s least-populated department, Creuse, is home to about 400 residents. Four Sudanese asylum seekers have been put up by villagers. One of these men is Nordeen Essak, 21, who has lived in Faux-la-Montagne for the past eight months.

He had not yet been granted the opportunity to register his asylum claim when the authorities decided to deport him to Italy under the Dublin IV agreement, which allows deportation to the first country in the European Union in which a migrant’s fingerprints were registered. Villagers banded together to form a support committee. Essak has no ties in Italy, as his lodger explained to a local newspaper, and villagers feared he might then get deported from Italy back to Sudan, where his father and brother were killed. The mayor of Faux-la-Montagne tried to convince local MPs to intercede on Essak’s behalf, but with no success.

Tensions came to a head when Essak was taken into detention. On July 9, about 150 protesters gathered outside the local jail and used trash bins to try to form a barricade and prevent the police from transferring Essak to Paris. But the police broke down the barricade and dislodged the protesters using tear gas. The scene was filmed by local media:

At 4’56, the police officers spray tear gas on the protesters.

Essak was then sent to a detention centre in the Paris region. But on July 23, just before an appeals hearing, Essak’s lawyer got some good news: the state would allow Essak to apply for asylum after all. This means he’ll be able to stay in France until his asylum claim is examined, which generally takes several months. He told La Montagne newspaper: “I would like to stay in France and in Faux-la-Montagne. Now, I am free. I am very happy and I thank the people of Faux-la-Montagne.”

So what brought about his reversal? His lawyer, Jean-Eric Malabre, says it’s quite simple: “The prefecture realised that what they had done was actually illegal.”

He explains:

Essak came to France more than a year ago. He first went to the Paris region, but he was then sent to a centre in the Creuse. He asked the prefecture for authorisation to apply for asylum, but this was refused. He was sent back to Italy, but at the border, after an hour's detention, the police told him to go back to France. His only option was to go back to the Creuse, where he had friends. There, he tried again to ask for authorisation to apply for asylum, but was once again denied.

So earlier this month, when Essak was sent to a detention centre in the Paris region, he was almost put on a plane to Italy for a second time. But he refused to board, and, since there was no security escort to force him to stay on the plane – which are usually only sent for tough cases, like after a person has already refused to board previously – he was temporarily taken back into detention. That’s when his supporters contacted me and I looked into his case.

"It’s quite likely that if Essak hadn’t had the support of the villagers [...] he would be deported by now"

What quickly became clear was that the prefecture had got their dates muddled. According to the law, the prefecture had to send Essak back to Italy before May 25. And once that delay expired, he should have then been allowed to stay in France and apply for asylum. I lodged an emergency appeal, but the prefecture capitulated right before we went to court.

It’s quite likely that if Essak hadn’t had the support of the villagers, who brought his story to the media’s attention and who contacted me for help, he would be deported by now. Sadly, there are many others just like him all over France who don’t have such support networks, who live in the streets and certainly don’t understand the intricacies of the laws here.


Attempts to halt deportations at the airport

In Paris, some citizens try to stop deportations at the airport, or even inside the plane.

Wael Garnaoui is a psychoanalytic studies doctoral student who volunteers as a therapist for asylum seekers. On July 17, he and two friends went to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport to try to stop the deportation of a Guinean man to Italy.

“I warned them he might feel ill during the flight, given the risks he faced”

This was the first attempt at deporting Mamadou. He was detained in the airport police station until 20 minutes before the boarding time. He registered and did not resist. Meanwhile, we went to the airline’s counter. I did everything I could to convince them not to bring him on board. I explained that I was working as his therapist, and warned them that he might feel ill during the flight, given the risks he faced. Once in Italy, he might get deported back to his home country. And then, right before boarding, Mamadou started feeling ill. So, after hearing our request and seeing him in such a poor state, the co-pilot decided to take him off the plane.


Wael Garnaoui (left) and two other activists with Mamadou (whose faces we have blurred) after they managed to halt his deportation.

Before another deportation could be attempted, the delay during which the authorities could send him back elapsed, and Mamadou was finally allowed to register his asylum claim. So, until that’s decided, he’s not at risk of deportation.”

"Even if a deportation is halted, there's no guarantee they'll be granted asylum"

Nasr Azaiez, a lawyer based in Paris, frequently assists migrants facing deportation, pro bono. He says that these types of protests are tricky, but can sometimes help:

When an exiled person is registered by the prefecture, if they see that he’s been registered in another EU country previously, they will contact that country. If, after two months, the country of first registration hasn’t replied to the request to send the person back there, then follows a six-month period during which the prefecture will ask the person to sign-in at the police station several times, like they do in house arrest cases. During this six-month period, the prefecture usually serves the person with an official order to leave the territory and then deports them.

During these six months, if the deportation doesn’t happen [because the person refused to board or because people protested and stopped the person from forcefully being brought aboard or stopped the plane from taking off] then they are sent back to the detention centre to await a second deportation attempt. But sometimes, the delay expires before they’re deported.

If that’s the case, then the person can finally get their asylum claim registered. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be granted asylum, since most claims are rejected [Editor’s Note: only 16.8 percent of requests were granted in 2017]. They then find themselves stuck in an administrative no-man’s-land: they are stuck in France, without papers. Their only hope then is to score a job contract in order to obtain papers.

On July 23, at an airport in Göteburg, Sweden, a young women refused to sit down and let her plane take off in order to stop the deportation of an Afghan man who was about to be sent back to Afghanistan. She filmed herself doing this and her video went viral throughout Europe.