Two groups of seasonal workers arriving in France by plane from Bulgaria have been sent back home by the French airport authorities, despite the European Commission’s calls to ensure the freedom of movement of such “critical” personnel.
On 7 and 9 May, the French authorities sent back home two groups of 73 and 10 seasonal workers, respectively, saying that France does not admit visitors under the COVID-19 state of emergency, which was lifted on Monday (11 May).
The European Commission has said seasonal workers must be allowed continued freedom of movement across internal borders, despite emergency coronavirus measures. On 30 April, the EU executive published guidelines to ensure the movement of critical workers.
Nonetheless, as of 8 April, France allows entry into the country only to foreigners who have permanent residence in France, which excludes seasonal workers.
The groups of Bulgarian seasonal workers are said to have already worked in France harvesting crops and had work contracts, but this did not prevent their expulsion.
The French police told EURACTIV the Bulgarian seasonal workers didn’t have all the necessary documents. In particular, they reportedly did not have any information concerning their accommodation and the exact duration of their stay.
Quentin Dekimpe, a French lawyer, told EURACTIV this was the first time he saw such a large group of EU nationals being “put in something that is in between a hotel and a prison”, with their smartphones taken away.
Dekimpe belongs to a group of volunteer advocates working during the COVID-19 crisis to mitigate the absence of state-paid lawyers who in normal times defend the rights of foreigners at the administrative waiting centre of the Charles de Gaulle airport.
Since the state of emergency was declared, the legal teams who usually decide on individual cases were no longer there, and this is why the waiting zone has started filling with EU nationals. This has never been the case before, Dekimpe said.
“This is how we saw an Englishman, a German, a Swede, a few Polish people coming. And the massive arrival of Bulgarians, which was quite exceptional”, he said.
Dekimpe said that from what he had seen, the seasonal workers’ papers were in order and the pretext for their expulsion was questionable. Moreover, they could have stayed in the waiting zone until Monday, when the state of emergency was lifted, instead of being expulsed.
Surprisingly, he said, a group of a dozen of Romanians had arrived on Sunday and were still detained in the waiting zone, although they should now be allowed to leave the airport.
Dekimpe said he would appeal the expulsions to the Council of State and was hopeful of a positive outcome.
He said he would not apply the term ‘discrimination’ to the French authorities’ particularly strict treatment of Bulgarians and Romanians but conceded it was a “political issue”.
In Bulgaria, however, some did see the French episode as discrimination.
Dimitar Manolov, the leader of the trade union Podkrepa, said the expulsions of Bulgarian seasonal workers smacked of anti-Roma racism, despite the fact that there is no information about the seasonal workers’ ethnicity and such a distinction is not made at the administrative level.
“This episode at the French airport has a very clear [racist] character. Although French hypocrisy never says it aloud, what they did was as good as saying ‘we don’t want the Bulgarian tsigans [Roma],” Manolov told a TV Evropa talk show.
France already an issue with Roma from Romania and Bulgaria, during French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s mandate, and the European Commission at the time reacted very strongly against attempts to stigmatise this ethnic group.
EURACTIV asked the Commission to comment on the discrepancy between the Commission’s own guidelines, advocating freedom of movement of seasonal workers, and national policies.
Spokesperson Adalbert Jahnz admitted the guidelines were indeed not entirely followed up, but said the EU executive was “continuing to work with member states” in this direction, so that the rules are “as clear as possible” to the citizens.
Asked about the allegations by the Bulgarian trade union leader that the expulsion had a racist and anti-Roma motivation, he said the Commission fully trusted the French authorities to investigate such allegations.
Unlike France, Austria has made big efforts to bring seasonal workers from Romania and Bulgaria.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]