Every year in Metropolitan France, about 25,000 people undergoing a procedure of éloignement (distancing) before their forcible removal from the territory are detained in designated centres or facilities — located within police stations — called centres de rétention administrative (centres of administrative containment – CRA) or locaux de rétention administrative (facilities of administrative containment – FAC) (La Cimade, 2021; Service Public, 2020). Today, there are 24 centres and 26 facilities spread across France where adults but also children can be detained for a period of up to 90 days. Here, I wish to recontextualise CRAs and FACs as, on the first hand, drawing on Agamben’s idea of the camp, ‘spaces of exception’ where the state’s sovereign power is free to unfold onto disciplined bodies in detention. On the other hand, I take a look at recent detainees-led social movements and reintroduce the role of migrants’ agency in creating new imaginaries of citizenship.
The ‘loi Bonnet’ of the 10th of January 1980 was the first to introduce the legal detention of undocumented migrants in facilities that do not respond to the penitentiary administration (Fisher, 2008; Le Monde, 2005). In line with the securitising turn of the immigration legislation in Europe at the dawn of the 21st century (Huysmanns, 2000), the CRAs joined the arsenal of institutional instruments deployed by the French government to counter the international migratory flows that were established in a 1994 White Paper on Defense as threats to national security interests (Bourbeau, 2015). This in turn justified the further entrenchment and specialisation of CRAs where a wide array of experts and actors became involved according to specific internal regulations set in a March 2001 decree (Fischer, 2009). Hence, the CRAs’ progressive institutionalisation has allowed the deployment of disciplinary mechanisms specific to their administrative and architectural structure.
The disciplinary grasp of the state over the sans-papiers (without papers) involves a dialogue between the administrative and corporal elements of detention, meant to control, pacify, and monitor individuals. Bodies in discipline who had, until then, managed to escape the state’s regulatory gaze. For instance, as Fischer writes, each new document added to one’s case will be transcribed corporally, whether it is through ‘release, a court appearance, or the forcible boarding of a flight’ (2009: 52). Then, even though the architectural and institutional structure of the CRA is distinct from that of a prison, the detainees’ alleged freedom of movement is subject to police surveillance. In this way, the disciplinary apparatus implemented within detention centres extends the police monopole over the arbitrary control of marginalised groups within public spaces. A historic dimension of the socio-spatial organisation of state control essentialised in Agamben’s notion of the camp. Ranging from Nazi concentration camps to humanitarian camps, Agamben understands the camp as the spatial embodiment of modern, state-sponsored, power asymmetries (Ek, 2006).
The CRAs borrow camps’ informality and precariousness (Fisher, 2008, 2013). Indeed, in the case of the CRAs, detention is the result of an administrative rather than judicial decision, meant to distance and monitor the targeted individual. The decision, according to Agamben, is born out of a ‘state of exception’ (Martin et all, 2009: 467) anchored in the securitisation and criminalisation of migrants through their production as colonial Others (Ek, 2006). Under the state of exception, the camp is viewed as a space of stillness, wait, and absence of rights where some ‘live a ‘capture of life in law’ (Agamben, 1995: 26 in Sigona, 2015: 5). This is rendered possible by the production of certain individuals as ‘bare life’ (Ek, 2006: 366) or life reduced to its corporal component. Deprived from the human rights afforded to others due to their lack of status (Fassin, 2005), the detained sans-papiers embody the ‘irreducible link uniting violence and law’. Hence, CRAs as camp-like spaces not only situate but reproduce the reduction of detainees to ‘bare life’ (Pratt, 2005).
Moreover, the CRAs overall conditions have also been criticised (Kristanadjaja, 2021). In October 2020, the Observatory of the imprisonment of foreigners published on their website the testimony of a woman detained in the CRA of Mesnil-Amelot reporting physical and psychological abuse by policemen. The reported abuses included among others, insufficient provision of sanitary products and policemen refusing to call relevant support when confronted with a medical emergency (L’OEE, 2021). These are far from isolated practices and numerous organisations have reported similar instances of violent abuse in other detention centers (Anafé, 2020; Cimade, 2013).
CRAs both in theory and in practice exemplify Agamben’s idea of the camp. However, concepts of bare life, the state of exception, and ultimately the camp, even though they are analytically useful in understanding how sovereign state power plays out geographically (Sanyal, 2012), are blind to people’s agency. McKittrick’s eloquent account of the role of analyses of racial and spatial violence in perpetuating the discursive ‘naturalization of violence, blackness, and death’ (2011, 955) is particularly illuminating here. Indeed, I wish to see CRAs as spaces where actual human relations unfold. Spaces of without a doubt, confinement, but also where ‘unexpected alliances might be forged in the face of dispossessed isolation’ (McKittrick, 2011: 958). In recent months detainees have been protesting against the CRAs’ poor detention conditions (Oberti, 2020), by engaging in hunger strikes, setting buildings on fire or refusing to return to their cell. These events, far from isolated movements, have sprung up in various CRAs around France (see LyonMag, 2020; 20 Minutes, 2020; Franceinfo, 2020). Even though detainees do not hold formal ‘papers’, their acts of defiance allow them to transcend the state apparatus to adopt and embody the membership rights they are being denied (Ataç et all, 2016). In this sense, migrants-led movements are critical, not only to reshaping the state’s current approach to migration but also to reimagining traditional citizenship both as a political identity and a formal status (Ataç et all, 2016). Then, through migrants-led movements, detention life will pour into ‘streets, homes, courts, the department of justice, and across the state (McKittrick, 2011: 959) so that new worlds can be shaped and conceived by the people who form it.