France has detained Tunisian migrants holding residency permits and criticised the Schengen visa-free pact  [AFP]


Human rights groups have questioned the legality of the French police's arrests of migrants from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

French police said they carried out the latest round of arrests on Wednesday night, detaining immigrants who were sleeping rough in parks in Paris and Marseille and drawing condemnation from rights groups.

Police said 60 more immigrants, mostly Tunisians with some Egyptians and Libyans, were arrested earlier on Tuesday in and around Paris, for "breaking residency laws".

In Marseille, about 15 immigrants were arrested as non-governmental organisations intervened to try to house them, Bernard Eynaud of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said.

Alexandre Leclève, a spokesperson for La Cimade, a French NGO that advocates migrants' rights, told Al Jazeera that the detention of the migrants was “completely illegal”.

Normally, migrants without residency papers are placed into detention centres, and must appear before a judge within 48 hours.

However because many of the recent North African migrants have been given Italian documents, granting them residency rights in France, Leclève said they are being handled outside the framework of the standard procedure.

"It's a way of side stepping the law," he said.

His organisation will be taking legal steps to challenge the measures taken by the French authorities.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Muammar Gaddafi long co-operated with European countries to prevent the flow of migrants from crossing the Mediterranian Sea, a crossing which many North African youths believe will bring them a brighter future.

With the Tunisian president ousted by a popular uprising and Libya in the midst of civil war, the two countries are no longer patrolling the seas, and thousands of migrants have made the trip, many of them touching land on the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa.

Residency permit "insufficient"

The Italian authorites, feeling abandoned by fellow EU member states, have offered six-month EU residency permits to the migrants, allowing them the right to travel to neighbouring European countries. For many Tunisians, the destination of choice is France.

But France has vowed to deport migrants who cannot support themselves and has started rounding up Tunisians from its streets.

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"In France, even with the papers, I am afraid," Moez, a lanky 39-year-old from southern Tunisia, told the AFP news agency in Paris this week, showing his own temporary residency card issued by Italian authorities.

On Tuesday, France and Italy, which had quarrelled over the handling of the migrants, suggested allowing EU states re-impose internal frontier controls temporarily in case of a major influx of migrants.

Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, defended travel freedom within the passport-free Schengen area as one of the continent's cherished policies.

"If you can improve the Schengen system then that is good and you should," Westerwelle said.

"But travel freedom in Europe is such an important achievement that it should not be up for renegotiation."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy sparked an uproar last summer by rounding up Roma minorities from unauthorised camps and deporting them to Romania and Bulgaria.

Critics allege Sarkozy is competing for votes with the far-right National Front, whose support has been growing, according to polls.

Claude Gueant, France's interior minister, has warned the migrants will be expelled if, like Moez, they do not have the means to support themselves in France.

Gueant responded in a letter that it was "not up to the state to provide" for them. Some will be sent back to Tunisia while those with Italian-issued permits will be returned to Italy, he wrote.

"Italy wants to help us. Why is France not helping us?" Moez said, insisting he wants to work. He declined to give his family name.

Contributed reporting by Yasmine Ryan

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies