Outsourcing the monitoring of irregular migration in France

The fact that post-Brexit migration policies in the UK are taking the form of a broader involvement of public and private actors in the monitoring of irregular migration reminds me a lot the French situation in the early 2000s.

Nicolas Sarkozy, first as Minister of the Interior from 2003 to 2007 then as President in 2007, is often associated with this restrictive turn in migration policies in France. In September 2003, he addressed prefects (the representatives of the French state at the local level) and announced a measure that defined his period in office. This was the setting of deportation targets. Each prefect would be assigned an individual target, which would eventually become the basis for his or her evaluation. This had a spill over effect on the evaluation of other civil servants, among them local police chiefs. As a result, law enforcement was drawn inexorably into the “fight against illegal immigration”.

This went hand-in-hand with a more general mobilisation of private and public actors. Already, social services (the family benefits office, social housing) were required to ask for documentation and check the legality of a person’s status before providing any aid. But Sarkozy’s changes extended a policing logic to the private sector, for example to banking services. The case of a man from Mali who wanted to open a bank account was reported in Le Parisien in 2009. After finding out that his documents were forged, the bank employee sent a report to the prosecutor and the luckless client was arrested on this basis. The bank’s managers took responsibility and declared that this was a habitual and systematic procedure.

Naturally, the pressure to achieve deportation targets also affected the police, who developed “creative” ways to apprehend undocumented migrants, such as requesting access to schools or requiring school directors to cooperate with immigration control objectives. One of the most controversial incidents was when a school director was asked by police officers to present two of his students to police officers, who brought them to a police facility to wait for their undocumented father to come get them. The school director had no idea he was part of a plan to trap the students’ father.

Two further examples demonstrate clearly how this ‘outsourcing’ of monitoring played out in practice.

The first relates to the role of employers in implementing migration policies. Even before Sarkozy’s reforms, it was illegal to hire an undocumented migrant. But a new law on immigration passed in 2006 changed the system of control so that it became company-based. Employers (as well as employment offices) now have to check that the foreigners they want to hire are allowed to work. Employers must then send a copy of the document of the person they want to hire to the local préfecture so that this office can verify the document is not forged. Moreover, since 2007, employers and temporary work agencies in the construction and service sector are required to provide a list of the non-EU citizens that they are hiring. Amber Rudd’s recent proposal to introduce this measure in the UK met with a public outcry, but in France the measure passed with little public reaction.

The second example relates to education. In 2004, a new database called ‘Base-élève’ was created and tested out in preschools and elementary schools. In theory, it was unrelated to migration issues since it was designed as a management instrument for educational administrators  But, within a general atmosphere of suspicion, certain data (nationality, date of arrival in France, main language spoken at home) were suspected by human rights organisations and teachers’ unions to have migration control objectives.

These suspicions were confirmed when, in 2008, the education board of the Haut-Rhin department “accidentally” sent an e-mail to 850 school directors asking them: “Are you aware of the schooling of illegal [sans-papiers] students in your school? … If so, could you please let us know today by mail or phone.” Amid the strong reaction against this requirement, the minister withdrew the controversial data from the database. It is not surprising that it is exactly the same kind of concerns that are being raised at the moment in the UK as the government expands the collection of school information to include “pupils’ nationality and country of birth”.

What conclusions can we draw from this brief comparison of the French and British experiences of expanded migration monitoring? First, we should consider the effects of a general mobilisation of various actors around immigration policy goals, which can occur outside of more formalised outsourcing processes. Second, we see that changes in the involvement of civil servants in the fight against “illegal” immigration does not necessarily require changes to the law. Finally, we should think more carefully about the impact of prominent politicians, in this case Nicolas Sarkozy. Hopefully, the historical dimension of our project will allow us to assess the relative weight that can be accorded to individual actors in the formulation of migration and monitoring policies.