View: What I saw while held 48 hours in a French migrant detention centre

View: What I saw while held 48 hours in a French migrant detention centre
By Rafael Cereceda
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A Chilean man spent 48 hours in a French detention centre. His account gives rare insight into how EU detention centers work—and how Europe is dealing with illegal migration.


A 30-year-old Chilean man came to Europe with some friends on a tourist visa to travel and perform music. But once his visa expired he decided to stay a bit longer in Lyon, France, where he had a relative.

His desire to stay was based on “young foolishness”, as he wanted to keep travelling and making music in Europe—but didn’t think much of the legal consequences.

Trying to cross the border from France to Spain by bus he was detained by French police after overstaying his visa by nine months.

The man, who has declined to be named to protect his identity, told his experience to Euronews and emphasized he’s not an “economic migrant”, saying his family could have paid for a return flight. The interview took place while he was waiting to be deported to Chile. The deportation process took a total of four months and included delays brought about after the police lost his case file.

His account gives rare insight into how EU detention centers work—and how Europe is dealing with illegal migration.

The following are some excerpts of the interview:

I decided to go to Spain because I had a friend, also a musician, and I wanted a change from Lyon, as living as an illegal migrant here in France is not easy. I took a bus because I thought it would be safer, but I was definitely wrong. I should have done a car-sharing scheme.

When the border police stopped the bus near the Spanish border, I knew I was in trouble, thought I had some hope as I would be leaving, not returning to the country (France).

I have the feeling that police lied to me from the beginning. They told me “don’t worry, it’s only an administrative issue, it will take a couple hours then you can leave”. They spoke to me in Spanish with a strong French accent.

I thought they were going to give me a paper for the expulsion—not ending up in a detention center, which in the end is like being arrested.

The friend travelling with me asked to stay but they forced her to get back in the bus.

‘Police was misleading’

When I arrived at the police station I didn’t know where I was. The police wouldn’t talk to me. I got to talk to a translator by phone. He told me to stay calm and that I wasn’t going to be treated as a criminal since I wasn’t one.

He told me I had the right to ask for a doctor and for a lawyer, but he advised me not to as this would delay the process. I was scared and it was the first Spanish-speaking person I could speak to, so I trusted him and didn’t ask for a lawyer.

I think the translator played me.

At the police station’s waiting area they kept telling me it was only an administrative issue. But they ignored me when I asked for a phone charger, as I had forgotten mine at the bus and my mobile phone was out of battery.

Then there was the change of shift, so the new policemen put me inside a cell—like a criminal—even though I was told it wasn’t going to happen.

Finally, I got summoned to the police chief’s office with the interpreter, who repeated that I could leave “in a few hours” or “the morning after” at the latest. “They’ll give you an expulsion document, maybe they’ll pull out your passport but everything is going to be alright”. He never mentioned I could end up in a detention center.


The police chief questioned me through the interpreter. Then they gave me my declaration, which I couldn’t read as I speak little French. The interpreter again told me it was just paperwork and that I should sign.

I tried to insist on getting the document translated but they put a lot of pressure on me to sign, even though I couldn’t read it. I was shocked, almost in tears. I trusted the interpreter, who kept saying I would be released very quickly.

Later I learned that the declaration read that I had “formally rejected” to have a lawyer and that I had “formally rejected” to make a call, an option than no one gave to me. I think they refused me the right to make a call.

Then they sent me back to the cell. I asked again to use my phone but they took it away, together with all my personal belongings or anything I could use to harm myself like a criminal.

I told them I am claustrophobic. A policeman promised I could leave the cell for a short walk if I was feeling anxious but there was a shift change and the new agents never let me out.


I slept in a concrete “bed”. They gave me food, like a flight menu, water, and a blanket. There was a new shift change so I took advantage to ask for food again as the portion was very little!

‘It’s like a hotel, but you can’t go out’

The morning after, I don’t know what time exactly as I was disoriented, two policemen told me I was not going to leave but going to a migrant detention center. (C.R.A in French).

I was quite surprised a Spanish-speaking policeman told me it was “like a hotel, but you can’t go out”. They wanted to transport me in a car with “cages” but I refused, as I said I can be quite claustrophobic.

When I got to the center, in the outskirts of Perpignan, they took away again all my personal belongings and they made me sign again a paper I couldn’t understand.


Later I learned I was signing the petition by the French authorities that asked me to be put in the detention center, to deport me, and then ban me from returning to France for three years.

Interns came to speak with me. A Spanish-speaking Moroccan intern introduced me to the rules of the center, they explained how to make phone calls and I learned I could buy tobacco (about €1 more expensive than outside the center).

Around 15 hours had passed since I was taken off the bus and I had yet to make a phone call. I couldn’t smoke either. That was hard.

In the centre I could finally buy some cigarettes and a card to make some phone calls. The problem is that they took away my phone because it has a photo camera, so I didn’t have my contacts with me, nor my SIM card. Almost by a miracle, I remembered a French friend’s phone number.

It was the first friendly voice I heard in 20 hours. It was the first time in almost a full day that I could tell someone I know where I was and what was happening to me.


In the centre, there are double rooms, a courtyard, and a TV set for all the interns and vending machines. The showers are shared but the interns had put blankets to try and give privacy, as not everyone wants to have a shower in front of everyone else.

There is almost no contact with the center’s staff. Nobody told me there’s an office for the Forum Refugees NGO in the center, only the interns told me I had to go there. Forum Refugees was very helpful, they explained all the options I had: I was going to be deported, but either I waited inside the center (for a maximum of 45 days) or I could be released and await deportation under certain conditions.

My French friend started the paperwork to help me get released (basically, authorities ask for a legal resident with economic means to maintain an “illegal” person who promises to take them in their charge)

Inside the center, the most touching thing is the solidarity between the migrants: how they help each other, how they shout a person’s name when there’s a phone call, how they exchange food, cigarettes … they are simple gestures but it becomes important in such a situation.

There was also an “instant sympathy” phenomenon, even if it was very short stay. There’s a very quick confidence between interns, a sort of brotherhood. In my case, mostly with those who spoke Spanish, the Moroccan, and a Peruvian. But not the only ones. My best friend there was a Senegalese and he didn’t speak Spanish—but somehow we established a very interesting relationship.


I was the only “white” person I saw in 48 hours there. The rest were Africans, some Moroccan and Algerians, a Peruvian and myself.

The Peruvian, a good connoisseur of Europe’s detention centers, told me that the best are in the Netherlands, with a TV set in each room—individual ones—and a self-service restaurant.

When I left the detention centre I was told I had to leave the country in 45 days, during which I had to sign in every day at the police station. 

‘Released because I had the means’

Then came the moment of the trial. My friend had come from Lyon, but the NGO staff had made a mistake with the date so they had to wait one more day.


I went together with a Moroccan and two Senegalese guys, all of us asking for a conditional release.

But I was the only one with 100% of the paperwork in order. Also, the fact that my friend could physically come to the trial played a role.

From the start, the prosecutor reassured me, saying he wasn’t going put up much of a fight for the case. He was much harder with the other defendants.

And I can’t help but thinking that I was released because my entourage had the means to put the paperwork together—and come to the trial, as it was a pretty expensive trip. For the other defendants, I have the feeling they lost the trial before it even began. 

I’m not concerned with what happened to me, but I think it shows how other people, real migrants, can be treated by EU authorities.


Nearly three months after being sentenced to leave I asked the French authorities what was going on with my case. After a few days they told me that my deportation procedure was still ongoing but that my file had goten lost. They said if I hadn’t reminded them they wouldn’t have even noticed (and that I could have stayed in France).

The authorities then asked when I wanted to leave and I told them a date. They sent me the flight tickets and that’s all, I left.

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