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Irregular Immigration | France |

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Irregular Immigration

Marcus Engler

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According to estimations, some 200,000 to 400,000 people without legal residence status – "sans-papiers" – are present on French territory. The number of irregular migrants in the French overseas territories is especially high.

In French Guiana alone the number of sans-papiers is estimated at 30,000 – 80,000 (entire resident population in 2008: 216,000 ). Due to the geographic proximity to migrants’ countries of origin, especially Mayotte, French Guiana, St. Martin and Guadeloupe face a stronger migration pressure than Metropolitan France. While irregular migrants in the overseas territories come from the surrounding regions (e.g. Haiti), it is assumed that the majority of the irregular migrants in Metropolitan France comes from West Africa and the Maghreb states.

In response to this phenomenon, an initial legalization program was carried out in 1982, with 132,000 people being given legal residence status as a result. The sans-papiers came to public notice in particular with their protests in 1996. In that year they occupied two churches in Paris demanding the granting of residence permits. Since that time both the term sans-papiers and their cause have been firmly anchored in French public consciousness. A few weeks after coming into power in June 1997, the government of Lionel Jospin (PS) drew up a second legalization program. This time about 87,000 out of a total of 150,000 applicants were given a residence permit. In 2006 a limited number of families without papers whose children were attending school in France were legalized. Of the more than 30,000 applicants, 6,924 were ultimately granted a residence permit. Migrant aid organizations such as the RESF network (Education without Borders) are calling for further legalization for families living in France without authorization. More legalization is also the aim of the trade unions, which support workers without valid work permits. Of these, 500 occupied the French museum for migration (Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration) for three months in 2010. The Immigration Act of 2006 abolished the automatic legalization of immigrants living without authorization for at least ten years in France. It thus represents a move away from legalization as a means of dealing with the issue of unauthorized residents. The deportation of people without a valid residence permit became a popular strategy under Nicolas Sarkozy in the “fight” against irregular migration. Already during his post as Minister of the Interior, Sarkozy had declared that he wanted to significantly raise the number of deportations of irregular migrants. He then purposefully implemented this policy. While between 1997 and 2002 around 9,000 irregular immigrants were deported per year, deportations reached a record level in 2011: The government reported that a total of 32,912 people were deported. More than half of the deportations took place in the French overseas territories. In Mayotte alone, 20,429 people were deported in 2010. The Minister of the Interior Claude Guérant declared in January 2010 that this course would be continued. The number of deportations of irregular migrants should increase in 2012 to 35,000.



  1. (accessed: 3-20-2012)

  2. The proportion of legal migrants in the entire population of Mayotte and St. Martin is about 40%, in French-Guiana they make up about 30%.

  3. See newsletter ‘Migration und Bevölkerung’ 5/06, 6/06, 7/06.

  4. See newsletter ‘Migration und Bevölkerung‘ 1/12.

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