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Fires expose troubles at French immigrant lockups
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    PARIS — Two French holding centers for illegal immigrants have been set ablaze in recent weeks, ratcheting up tensions over tough new immigration policies that France wants to spread Europe-wide.
    The immigration minister isn’t backing down — and is instead accusing some aid groups of inciting detainees to commit arson.
    ‘‘I’m just trying to control myself because if you don’t, you go crazy,’’ Singa Senghor, a 34-year-old from Congo, said in a telephone interview from one of the centers on the edge of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport. ‘‘There are some people here who lose it.’’
    Conditions vary at the 22 detention centers around France. Aid groups say hygiene is improving, but barbed wire and increasing numbers of security cameras and automatically locking doors fuel immigrants’ fears. Some centers hold children, even infants.
    France, under conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, has sought to change the profile of immigrants who come to the country, favoring skilled labor, students and professionals. That and an aggressive policy of expulsion quotas diminishes the chances of immigrants fleeing poverty to get residence papers.
    Immigrant rights defenders say the government is going too far and say the Immigration Ministry’s target of 26,000 expulsions this year increases the pressure to catch illegal immigrants while eating away at their human rights.
    Each day at the Mesnil-Amelot center, a new list is posted behind glass in the cafeteria of the center, with names and dates for those who will see a judge, visit with a consular official or be put on a plane for immediate expulsion, several people being held there said.
    It’s like the writing on the wall, but ‘‘if you don’t look at it, at 6 in the morning they will come get you by surprise,’’ Senghor said.
    Two small fires broke out Saturday at the facility and tear gas was used to contain people during the emergency. Quickly extinguished, the blazes heightened concerns that the situation in France’s holding centers was deteriorating.
    A major fire June 22 devastated the largest center, in Vincennes, east of Paris, after the death of a 41-year-old Tunisian detainee, said to have died of natural causes.
    The two Centers of Administrative Detention are among 22 in mainland France plus 10 smaller locales and a handful in overseas French territories. The centers have more than doubled their intake capacity in five years, from 786 places in 2003 to 1,700 today.
    A nearly 300-page report on the centers by Cimade, the only aid group authorized to work inside the centers, said the ‘‘industrialization’’ of expulsions has taken hold in France.
    With the crackdown, ‘‘there is a big turnover (and) it is more difficult for us to provide individual and personal help,’’ said Cimade’s Julie Chansel.
    Last year, 35,000 people were placed in detention, including 242 children, one a 3-week-old child, according to Cimade.
    Tensions are increasing as France looks to launch a common immigration pact this fall with its 26 European partners and as tough policies like the expulsion quotas instituted by Hortefeux, France’s first minister of immigration, change the landscape for illegal immigrants.
    Less than two years ago, foreigners pressing for residency papers to give them legal status routinely held noisy street demonstrations. Today, they lie low as police and airport officials multiply identity checks.
    Hortefeux convened police and gendarmerie officials Monday then announced that he was filing a complaint against a small immigrant rights group for allegedly provoking destruction. He denounced SOS-Soutien aux Sans-papiers as an ‘‘extreme leftist mini-group.’’ The minister’s statement cited the group’s president, Rodolphe Nettier, as telling a major daily Le Parisien this week that ‘‘Our marching order is: burn the centers.’’
    Nettier says he was misquoted. However, he maintained in an interview that setting a fire inside the center ‘‘is legitimate defense since they (migrants) are locked up and innocent.’’
    ‘‘We call for their immediate closure,’’ Nettier said.
    A joint statement Wednesday by six associations that work with illegal immigrants said that officials ‘‘exonerate themselves of their responsibility’’ by seeking to blame aid groups rather than analyzing the effects wrought by their policies.
    ‘‘Acts of despair and anger are multiplying’’ in the centers, the statement warned. ‘‘Self-mutilation, suicide attempts, hunger strikes, starting fires are frequent’’ as ‘‘pressure on foreigners and the increasing reduction in their rights generates a feeling of humiliation, anxiety and revolt.’’
    While Senghor and another detained person agreed that the Mesnil-Amelot center is clean, they said digestive ailments are common and ‘‘you can’t see a happy face here ... You are inside of nowhere.’’

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