Rabat — Earlier this month, French authorities detained a Burkinabe migrant family with two young children for over 48 hours, spurring controversy and backlash.
Mariam Dembele and her two children Aicha, 8, and Chaka, 6, arrived in France in February of last year by way of Burkina Faso, Niger, Libya, and eventually Italy, where the family spent five months.
Dembele has been registered as a “dublinée” in France since May of 2020, the term extended to the country’s some 50,000 asylees who have been fingerprinted in another EU country. The designation is a derivative of the 2008 Dublin Procedure, an EU bylaw that determines which EU state is responsible for the review of an applicant’s asylum application.
Per the contingencies of her parole, Dembele must appear at the local prefecture every month, with the risk of deportation to Italy if she fails to comply. The family’s Cimade — an NGO-assigned advocate for undocumented immigrants — corroborated that the single mother had “complied with all her administrative duties” to date.
That’s where the three were headed on Tuesday, February 9, when the order came to transport the mother and her two children to the Mesnil Amelot Administrative Detention Center seventy kilometers north.
The trio was detained for two days before being able to appear before a judge. The judge quickly threw out the detention case for “irregularity of procedure” and the family was released Thursday, February 11. Per case records, the judge found detention to be a “disproportionate” punishment for the accusations.
A local employee at Cimade, the same NGO that worked with Mariam’s family, argued that “the Dembele family has been in France for longer than six months and thus is no longer subject to the Dublin Procedure. [Dembele] is entitled to apply for asylum or a residence permit for private and family life.”
However, while the Dembeles have been freed from detention, community leaders worry they are still likely to be sent back to Italy. Emilie, a teacher at Paul Langevin Elementary School, where Aicha and Chaka have studied since December, explains, “The prefecture has kept Mariam’s passport, the school holidays are beginning, and we are afraid that security forces will come to pick them up at home.”
Immigration advocates in France are critical of a system that lets so many migrants — even children — slip through the cracks. “Unfortunately, it’s common,” explains another Cimade representative. She quantified that, in 2019, 83 children were transported through the Mesnil Amelot center alone, with varying durations of stay.
France is home to a total of 26 immigrant detention centers.
On February 12, the day after the Dembeles’ release, parents and elected officials gathered at Paul Langevin Elementary to denounce the students’ detention.
Flore, a teacher at the school, explained that the small demonstration was impromptu. “It was not planned,” she clarified, “but we wanted to denounce what happened. Children have no place in a detention center!”
Mariam, Aicha, and Chaka made an appearance at the event, where they were described as “lost, tired, and tormented” after their confinement.
Several local officials in Corbeil-Essonnes, where the Dembeles live, made an appearance at the rally. In a speech he delivered at the event, Deputy Mayor Michel Nouaille condemned the family’s detention and expressed his solidarity.
Nouaille also wrote a letter to the Secretary General of the Prefecture advocating for a stay of deportation for the Dembele family until Mariam is able to complete an asylum application. It is still unclear whether the stay will be granted.
Teachers at the kids’ school have rallied in support of their students. Emilie, who evaluated Aicha after her arrival to France, described her as a quick learner and a hard worker. “Aisha speaks French perfectly, and she absorbed everything very quickly. She is in first grade and is well on her way to learning to read,” she described. “This child is resilience.”
Julie, another one of Aicha’s teachers at school, emotionally described the girl, purple backpack in hand, as “our little ray of sunshine.”