Anger over deportations

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Paris - The French government has angered opposition and civil rights groups by proposing a target of 20,000 for the number of would- be immigrants it deports each year, writes Mary Dejevsky.

The target, which would represent an increase of almost 50 per cent over the number of deportations last year, is one of a series of measures proposed this week to combat illegal immigration.

Others include an increase in the number of places in detention centres, closer surveillance of work sites to crack down on the employment of illegal aliens, higher fines on those who hire illegal workers, and a diplomatic offensive to improve "cooperation" with the countries where significant numbers of illegal immigrants come from.

The government also wants better cooperation between the police, the courts and prisons to ensure that someone sentenced to be deported is not released from prison without reference to immigration authorities. Of 60,000 people found to be in France illegally last year, only 12,000 were deported.

The problem of illegal immigration loomed large in the second round of this year's presidential election campaign after the record performance of the extreme right National Front in the first round. Jacques Chirac promised tougher action, but did not specify what.

Setting out the proposed new measures, the Interior Minister, Jean Louis Debre, stressed the difficulty in compiling figures for illegal immigration, but also the government's observation that the past two years had seen a growing professionalisation of illegal immigration. He said that "illegals" were increasingly brought into France by nationals of their home country settled in France, and often "shared" documentation with those already here.

In recent months, border security has been increased on the frontier with Italy, where North Africans, Yugoslavs and Afghans gather in the hope of entering France by mountain byways. The numbers trying to cross by this route was one reason France announced that it was unilaterally extending by six months the trial period of the Schengen agreement on lifting border controls inside the European Union.

While there is public pressure for tougher action, there is also considerable sensitivity to the way in which would-be immigrants are treated. There was an outcry two months ago when the Interior Ministry chartered two planes to deport several dozen Zaireans. Deportees were said to have been handcuffed and bound with tape throughout the journey.

Mr Debre insists that charter flights will continue, preferably coordinated with other EU countries. Such flights, he said, were cheaper than sending deportees back individually.