A controversial new immigration court near Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport opened Monday despite opposition by lawyers and human rights groups. Critics say they will continue to oppose the new court. 

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Controversial immigration court opens at Paris airport

After a high-profile campaign to try to block a controversial immigration court near Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, the court’s first session opened on Monday to a somewhat surreal scene.

In a building abutting an immigration detention center surrounded by cargo warehouses, the modest-sized new courtroom was crammed with lawyers, journalists and representatives of human rights organisations.

“At one point, we lawyers in our costumes were outside in a field in the middle of nowhere with planes flying overhead,” said Bruno Vinay, a French immigration lawyer, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “In the court itself, you could hear the planes outside. It was crazy.”

Unhampered by the surroundings, the first hearing at the new immigration court near the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport got underway.

In many respects, it was an unusual hearing for a busy immigration court system coping with heavy caseloads, overburdened lawyers and harried defendants.

The court’s first plaintiff, Senegalese national Boubacar Fall, was represented by an unprecedented six voluntary lawyers.

“Mr. Fall was surprised to see an army of lawyers represent him,” recounted Vinay, who was one of the pro bono lawyers. “He appreciated it, he thanked everyone – the lawyers, journalists and everyone present.”

In the end, though, Fall lost his case on Monday. The presiding judge ruled that the Senegalese national must be deported to his homeland pending an appeals hearing later this week.

The pro bono lawyers too suffered a setback when their argument that the new court was not compatible with international regulations and the principles of fair justice was overruled by the judge.

And so, an immigration court that has sparked outrage among migrant rights supporters across France delivered its first rulling just days after two migrant boat disasters off the Italian coast put the spotlight on the EU’s immigration policies.

‘The new place is very intimidating’

Critics of the new court – situated next to a detention center in the village of Mesnil Amelot, a few hundred meters from one of the CDG airport runways – have argued that the court’s location hinders the legal process and contravenes the foundations of France’s judicial system.

“It’s like judging a defendant in prison or in a prison annex,” said Sylvain Saligari, an immigration lawyer, noting that the court is situated in a highly secured zone that is “absolutely not conducive to ensuring the impartiality and serenity of the debate. This is disastrous in terms of image and symbolism, which is of paramount importance if justice must be seen to be served.”

Before the Mesnil Amelot court opened, defendants were bussed to courthouses in Bobigny and Meaux, towns just outside Paris, where the atmosphere is very different, according to Vinay.

“The court in Meaux sees all kinds of cases – family trials, criminal and civil cases,” he said, adding that he was also able to meet the families of his clients in the bar office at the Bobigny court, where public access is relatively easy.

In contrast, he notes, “The new place is very intimidating. It gives the impression that the court is in a camp.”

The heightened security presence is a disadvantage for public defenders like Vinay who often have to meet families of detainees to prepare their defense under tight time constraints.

While the court is technically under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry, lawyers complain that security at the new facility is overseen by the Interior Ministry, which can have implications for their clients’ families.

“If you have a family member in the detention centre, you have to pass through security at the gate, which is under the control of the Interior Ministry. In terms of image, a foreigner thinks it’s a detention centre. If a family member has to go to the [new] court, it’s a very complicated process, and if they themselves are without documents, they will not want to go,” said Vinay.

A cheaper, speedier process

Under the new system, defendants – who are technically not detainees since they are free to leave France – are brought to court from the adjacent detention center.

Supporters of the Mesnil Amelot court argue that the new premises reduce the time and cost of transporting migrants from the detention center to the court.

But Hélène Lipietz, a Green Party senator at the European Parliament, notes that it costs the state 258 euros to escort a migrant to court while the construction cost of the facility was 2.7 million euros.

In her reactions to the press, France’s Socialist Justice Minister Christiane Taubira did not seem convinced by the new system. “The space where justice is administered is not a trivial matter,” Taubira said who maintained the decision to open the new court was taken under the previous administration.

Few dispute that the new court will speed up the process. French officials estimate that between 3,000 to 4,000 cases will be heard each year at the new tribunal.

But Vinay argues that the focus needs to be service of justice, and not just speed.

“For the past five years, France has been deporting around 30,000 people each year. That is not enough for the government. They want to increase this number, that’s the objective,” said Vinay.

‘Of course I’m disappointed’

On Monday, Fall joined the statistics of foreign migrants in the process of deportation from France to their countries of origin. His lawyers’ objections that the process should be stopped were overruled by the judge.

While careful to stress the independence of French judges, Vinay nevertheless conceded that he was personally unhappy with the ruling.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” said Vinay. “We’re appealing the ruling and we can go all the way to the Supreme Court [Cours de cassation] and the European Court.”

But given the current anti-immigrant climate in France, Vinay confesses that he’s not very hopeful about the chances of rolling back the new system.

“I’m not optimistic. I know the government has invested a lot of money in this system. I can’t believe that a judge will stop this. I’m not saying that judges are controlled by the government,” he stressed. “But the chances don’t look good.”

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