On a day that numerous Anglo-centric publications are busy re-hashing the phrase “Sick man of Europe” to describe the French economy (based on a slight drop of 0.1% in production in the 3rd quarter), a very different view, it seems is presented by the sharp increase in clandestine immigration to France as revealed in figures released today by immigrations watchdogs OCRIEST
According to official statistics on the subject, 31 channels of clandestine human traffic were dismantled in 2013, compared to 23 in 2011. The pressure coming from these channels with France as their target has never been so strong. According to statistics revealed by the Office Central pour la Répression de l’Immigration Irrégulière et de l’Emploi d’étrangers sans Titres (Central Office for the Suppression of Irregular Immigration and Undocumented Foreigners), 201 criminal structures in total were broken up in 2013 in France, of which 31 of international origins were brought to light. That’s one network every two weeks. More than ever, France has become the Eldorado for groups of people coming from various parts of the planet.
The awkwardly-titled organisation (otherwise known as OCRIEST) was set up in 1996 and it operates on the front line of illegal immigration in France.
“Just like the drug-trafficking routes or those of the arms smugglers, the channels of distribution of illegal immigrants are very fluid organisations and are designed in accordance with the geopolitical context of the day, which is constantly evolving.” So says divisional commissioner Julien Gentile, boss of OCRIEST. While the flow of refugees from Afghanistan or Iraqi Kurds fleeing war over the last decade seems to be stemming, the powerful surge resulting from the Arab Spring has been making strong waves in France, pushing large numbers of Tunisians, Syrians and Libyans who spend an average of €2,000 to €3,000 per person coming to France by car or by lorry through Turkey, the Balkans, Greece or Italy. They now represent almost a third of clandestine immigrants arrested by security forces.
According to official statistics, 2,298 Tunisians were apprehended last year crossing the border into France from Italy. “In addition to this new phenomenon, we’re faced with Asiatic criminal organisations that are more and more sophisticated in their structure, with about twenty players involved along the chain of supply that move these migrants as if they were pure merchandise over 15,000km,” says an OCRIEST spokesman. The farther away the destination, the more complex the network, shipping their human cargo by plane to Sri Lanka, then to Africa where the “live exports” are held in stock in Togo or Benin until the time is right for them to be transferred into Schengen airspace in Europe.
Currently, Chinese immigrants spend up to €20,000 or €30,000 for a one-way trip to Paris. The bill can go as high as €60,000 for a personalised “VIP” service where the migrant is on an accompanied trip, complete with false passports of exceptional quality and the guarantee of arriving at the destination even if it takes more than one attempt.
“The money, which is deposited in an account, is release by the migrant, who sends messages to his family to order payments as he passes each frontier and progresses towards his destination,” explains one specialist officer at OCRIEST. “If the migrant is lifted, therefore, he doesn’t have a cent on him and his VIP companion will straight away claim to be a humanitarian or someone who’s helping out a member of his community.”
The African channels, more makeshift in their organisation and often run by crooks, have a tendency towards the more outlandish set-ups. One such case was was widely reported in France and which became known as the “Papa Wemba” affair, where Congolese immigrants, under cover of completely bogus cultural associations, were transited into France as folk groups of travelling musicians who had no instruments and singers incapable of singing a single note.
In general, more than ten months of investigation, founded on precious information from “fences”, are necessary before breaking up these huge structures. At the behest of these ever-present ongoing investigations, police have to call on the services of some 200 interpreters speaking Mandarin, Wenzhou, Hindi, Arabic, Punjabi or even Russian, transforming OCRIEST HQ in Lognes into an improbably Tower of Babel to process auditions.
In the face of this growing spectre of international people-trafficking, the office fighting against the tide of clandestine immigration has tripled its staff numbers over the last 15 years and now needs 120 inspectors supported in the regions by 500 specialist officers.
The trajectory of each sad journey etches out a story of living conditions that are at best undignified – people travelling in refrigerated lorries, bulk tanks carrying sand or maize, even hidden amongst live animal convoys to fool border controls that measure CO2 emissions or heartbeats. The financial gains in planetary human trafficking are colossal, with the UN placing it in third place below the drug and arms trade respectively. In the course of interceptions across the country in 2013, police seized €5.2 million of criminal assets, essentially composed of houses and apartments that were bought with the proceeds of criminal activity. Organisers of such networks run the risk of ten years in prison. Now, police are saying that they are swamped by the explosion of paperwork relating to clandestine immigration. For the princely sum of €100, illegals in the Parisian region can buy special false paper “kits” in the Barbès district – a pack that would include birth cert, false bills household bills, landlord’s references, etc. This allows them to get passports and identity cards that are, effectively, perfectly legitimate. Last year, Police in the Paris region arrested 190 forgers – artists capable of manufacturing paperwork that is sometimes better than the real thing in a lucrative market that is growing rapidly. They even come across biometric passports (of the sort that we were told were unfalsify-able) that come straight from clandestine production centres in Thailand or Pakistan.The most difficult one of all is the “look-alike” passport. This consists of playing on the difficulties that the average European officer has in “recognising with precision the physical traits of someone from Africa or Asia” according to one officer. The principle is simple: members of the community already set up in France simply lend their passport to a compatriot “passeur”. Armed with six or seven “open-sesames”, he then goes to Peking, Dakar or Abidjan to rent them out to would-be immigrants that look like the photograph on the document and who pay up to €2,000 to make the journey.
“In the foreign airports from where the ‘look-alikers’ come to Roissy, agents are set up to try and stop them at source,” one officer confides. “During targeted controls, we sometimes unmask one of these guys getting off the plane with a French passport in his hand but without a word of French; or even guys who can’t find Lille or Marseilles on a map…” In these cases, the real owner of the passport is pursued for assisting in illegal entry or irregular stay, while the look-alike is put back on a plane to his country of origin. The cost of the operation is charged to the airline company who brought the migrant to France and who is under obligation to ensure that all passengers’ paperwork conform to standards.