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International Law, Migration and Human Rights

     An interview with Ophélie Marrel, one of WEMov’s stakeholders

    Zoom interview (22 September 2022)

    Interview by Camelia Zavarache

    Ophélie Marrel has graduated from Science Po, specializing in international relations, international law and migrations. Between 2010 and 2017 she was a lawyer working on criminal law, foreignersʼ rights and minorsʼ regulations. In 2017 she became a legal adviser at the Commission nationale consultative des droits de l’homme (also known as CNCDH which stands for the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights). Founded in 1947, this commission is dedicated to protecting and promoting human rights in France, and it is accredited by the United Nations.

    Welcome & Acknowledgements.

    Presentation of the interviewers

    Camelia: Thank you so much, Ophélie, for taking the time and for agreeing to participate in the interview.

    On your LinkedIn page one can read that you are an active promoter of human rights. We would like to know more about your work as a lawyer and legal adviser. Could you tell us more about your background, your studies and also the reasons why you decided to specialize in international law and migrations?

    Ophélie Marrel: Thank you for inviting me for this interview! Well, my strong interest in human rights and their protection was one of the reasons why I chose to study Law, and I studied French and German Law at the University of Potsdam in Germany and then at Paris Nanterre in France, and afterwards I studied at Science Po Paris because I wanted to broaden the scope of my knowledge and skills and notably in Sociology and Politics. And during my studies I volunteered at Amnesty International France, so I was a member of the Amnesty Students Groups and also the head of the Commission for Justice. After my studies I began to work as a lawyer specialized in criminal law, children’s rights, migration and civil law. For me it is a concrete way to defend human rights on the ground.

    Camelia: Thank you! How would you define the tense relationship between the law-making process and the political context? It seems as though there is a constant clash between those who have the ability to change the law but maintain a rigid conservatory perspective and those who see beyond the political thought of their time but have no control over legislation (NGOs for instance). 

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, itʼs true that the political context influences the law-making process. In France this is particularly accurate in the fields of migration and criminal law, for example. For instance, after a petty crime we often hear public announcements aimed at changing the law. As recently this summer the Minister of Interior (domestic affairs) announced a bill aiming  at deporting more easily foreigners who committed a crime and arrived on French soil before the age of 13. Because now those foreigners belong to categories that cannot be expelled “easily” from the territory, which means, that there are more legal guarantees regarding their legal status in France. This was after a case of a preacher from the northern France who was to be expelled to Morocco because of, among other things, “acts of explicit and deliberate provocation to discrimination, hatred or violence”. His expulsion to Morocco was discussed before the court because his lawyers said that he couldnʼt be expelled because he belonged to the protected categories of people, because he had arrived on French soil before the age of 13. After that we heard that there would be a change in the law aiming at deporting people arriving on French soil before 13 more easily. So, we can really see the relation between a petty crime and then public announcements. About the influence of NGOs on law it is true that it is quite difficult for NGOs to influence the law-making process but for CNCDH as the French national human rights institution we can influence legislation in many ways because we are interviewed by the Parliament before a bill is prepared, during the parliamentary discussions and then about the application of the law; so, we advise on human rights implications of policies and propose legislations for example by providing parliamentary briefings and responding to governments or parliamentary consultations. It is true regarding topic like migrations that it is sometimes difficult to feel the concrete impact of the work but we can notice thanks to our work, from NGOs and from the civil society that some positive evolutions regarding human rights migrations. For example now there is a new international movement aiming at forbidding children detention in the migration field. This topic is discussed in international forums at the UN, and this may have an influence on French law, if there is a real evolution at international level.

    Camelia: I have a follow-up question. I was wondering about the recommendations that the CNCDH are making, are they mandatory for the Parliament?

    Ophélie Marrel: Our recommendations are not binding. We are a consultative institution.

    Camelia: Ok, thank you! Having worked both with minor and adult migrants, do you think that their legal status is similar, in the sense that they are both labelled as being in need of guidance and subjected to the Stateʼs guardianship? Could you explain to us how the tools you possess as a lawyer specializing on human rights can bring relief to their situations? How about women? Itʼs a longer question.

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, the legal status of minor and adult migrants is not the same because with respect to minor migrants regarding French legislation in fact they donʼt need to be documented to stay on French soil, as adults need to be documented to stay legally in France. Adult migrants need guidance and the Stateʼs guardianship too, and there are integration measures taken towards them like the right to housing, to healthcare, employment but they are less developed and not so easy maybe to get than for minor migrants. Regarding minor migrants I would like to talk about unaccompanied children: they are numerous in France and it is important to recall that they are children before being foreigners. As such they must be granted a special protection, this is stated by the European Court of Human Rights, by the UN treaty bodies and by international courts. In France there is a specific legal frame work for  unaccompanied children which is a bit complex because they belong to the child protection system, when they are recognized as minors and as such they are recognized  as children in danger, but the laws about foreigners apply to them too. Sometimes it is difficult because they donʼt manage to get a protection from the State because the laws about foreigners apply to them before the protection system. CNCDH works a lot on this topic.

    About the tools that you can have when you are a lawyer specializing in human rights, well the lawyerʼs tools are of course the legislation and court decisions, but as a lawyer specializing in human rights you can use tools that are less referred to like a decision of the European Court of Human Rights, international recommendations of the United Nations Treaty bodies, for example like the Committee for the Rights of the Child. You can use NGO reports or concrete testimonies from victims in a similar case, so you can really widen your field of thought to make a difference in order to defend a situation in the best possible way. This can make a difference.

    Camelia: I wanted to ask you what is the age limit for minors to be considered minors, is it 18 in France or is it 21?

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, itʼs 18, in France itʼs 18.

    Camelia: So they could be coming in the country by themselves at this age, 17, 18, young men I am guessing?

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, exactly. When they arrive on French soil, they are granted protection from the youth protection system and when they are 18, normally they should be documented; But sometimes there are cases of unaccompanied minors that are integrated, they go to school, they are doing trainings and when they are 18 if, they are not documented they could be expelled from the French territory, even though they are integrated. Itʼs a big issue. 

    Camelia: So how do you think such situation should be overcome?

    Ophélie Marrel: The clue is to provide them with documents when they arrive on the French soil, even if itʼs not mandatory you can have an identity card or administrative documents when you are a minor. If they are documented, before they are 18 they wouldn’t face the problem of illegal situation when they become 18.

    Camelia: I see, yes. Thank you! Ok, so, now moving on to women: do women stand out inside the group of migrants and if so what are the common traits that make them act differently?

    Ophélie Marrel: Itʼs true that migrant women are treated differently from men and we had the opportunity to talk about that when I was invited by Marie [Ruiz], in the summer. Some of them migrate for the same reasons as men, so they would flee from a war, a conflict situation, leave their home, their families, or for economic reasons or to find a job, a better life. But there are gender specific reasons too: women can be more exposed to violence in their country of origin; for example when there is a conflict, we know that rape is often used as a war weapon for example, or there is also forced marriage and these are really gender specific issues. Some women are exposed to the risk of female genital mutilation for example.  Gender-based violence is recognised as a reason to seek asylum in France. The gender specific situation is taken into account when they arrive on French soil and, normally they would manage to get a protection from the State more easily than men arriving alone for example. Itʼs maybe easier for women, because they are considered as a vulnerable group like children. This term “vulnerable group” is not very satisfying for the women as such. I think, but we can say that this is the situation that makes them vulnerable because their body is really used during the migration road and they are weakened by the migration road, and many of them are victims of human trafficking. And another part of the problem is that they often migrate with children or they leave alone and they get pregnant on the migration road so when they arrive they are not alone anymore and this is also a specific problem regarding women in migration.

    Camelia: Thank you so much, as you are speaking I am thinking about follow up questions. Just out of curiosity, from what you know those people at the administrative level working with migrant women do they have a sort of additional preparation, information regarding such sensitive issues such as the experiences women go through if itʼs a case of war and they leave their countries or is it just the same personnel attending to everybody?

    Ophélie Marrel: No, for example in the office for the asylum protection in France (OFPRA) they have specific trainings about women and specific gender issues. For example, they have specific trainings about how to deal with a woman who was raped, so it is really taken into account.

    Camelia: Well, that is great. Thank you so much! Ok, so the last question from this first section: From your experience in working with such vulnerable categories, does collaboration between European countries on international law have an impact on the way women migrants are being assisted?

    Ophélie Marrel: Well, what we know is that migrant women are nowadays more numerous in the migration field. There were always women migrating from all over the world but we never saw them, in fact, because they were not visible. And now, we talk more about them, and that is why policies must also adapt to these specific migratory roads and to the specific human rights violations they face. This is particularly accurate regarding victims of human trafficking; for example, in France there were many migrant women from Nigeria who were victims of human trafficking. On this topic, there are recommendations or regulations at European level that apply in France, for example there are recommendations that police border guards are trained specifically to identify potential victims of such crimes in order to grant them with a special protection when they arrive on the soil. I would say that the problem is more in the practice because the identification of victims is not developed enough even though the legal framework exists.

    Camelia: Thank you! So we will now start the second part of the interview. Your collaboration with the Commission nationale consultative des droits de l’homme (CNCDH) started five years ago. Could you tell us more about the objectives and the projects that CNCDH is coordinating?

    Ophélie Marrel: I will present the CNCDH, to understand concretely how we work. It is the French National Human Rights, (NHRI) institution established in 1947, more than 70 years ago. We are an independent institution. The CNCDH is guided by three principals: independence, pluralism and vigilance. Pluralism because we consist of 64 members, half of them represent NGOs, associations and trade unions and the other half are experts in human rights issues and so this reflects the diversity of opinion expressed in France regarding human rights issues and international humanitarian law. We advise public authorities on their policies related to human rights, so the Parliaments and the Governments and in this regard the CNCDH issue reports, statements, opinions with recommendations that are not binding, as the commission is consultative. The commission targets three types of public: public authorities, Parliaments, Governments and also the public in academia, universities, professors because we have a mission of education to human rights, that is why we have also this partnership with Women on the Move, and also the public opinion, through the website communication in the media. As the mandate is universal because it is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the CNCDH’s work is based on this universal approach and it covers a wide range of topics related to human rights. So, our fields of topics are very wide, we work on discrimination, migrant rights, education for human rights, people with disabilities, children’s rights, LGBTQ phobia, human trafficking, business and human rights.

    Camelia: Yes, all these sensitive issues, but that are really present in our societies. I was wondering, those experts that are part of the commission do they also teach at university?

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, some of them are law teachers but others are teaching history or geography. The members are volunteers at the commission and they represent the commission. There is a staff at the secretariat general, which I belong to.

    Camelia: So even though the recommendations are not binding, they have the professional authority to actually have an impact.

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, sure.

    Camelia: That is amazing.

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, and we have many judges as experts, we have lawyers, we have important personalities. So, we had one of our members was a former Minister, so in the 1980s, so it was a long time ago but you know, she really had a certain authority in the human rights field.

    Camelia: Thatʼs amazing. Ok, so are there any partnerships that the commission establishes with the countries from where most of the migrants in France are coming?

    Ophélie Marrel: In fact, we cannot say that we have partnerships with the countries from where most of the people are coming. On migration issues we monitor the human rights situation in France and then we report our findings and recommendations to the French government and Parliaments and also to the United Nations Treaty Bodies. For example we carry out some monitoring missions on the ground, so we have monitored the situation at the Franco-Italian border, or in Calais, in northern France, and drafted reports with recommendations about it. The CNCDH belongs to international and European networks, so we take part in the network of European National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) and to the global network of national human rights institutions. Within those networks we can have special partnerships and relations related to some countries.

    Camelia: I see, so even though it is a national commission the findings and recommendations go beyond, are known at a European level and a global level.

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes.

    Camelia: Thank you! Do you think that European societies through the lens of mass media have created certain stereotypes that have been attached to migrants? I am referring now to the movie La derive des continents, directed by Lionel Bayer, a debate you were asked to moderate on 15 September. How about women migrants, how are women migrants framed by the media?

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, well this movie is very interesting because it shows how migration and political communication are related. In the movie we see the staging of the reception of the French and German heads of State in the reception camp for migrants in Sicily, Italy, and we see how the images of the camp and of the migrants are manipulated to be shown to the public. They want to show a camp with bad living conditions before the visit of the head of State and to show other images, one month later to say “You see, the head of State of France came to this camp and now the living conditions are better”. There is a funny or absurd scene with a stereotype about a migrant who is actually fluent in French and is asked to speak as if he wouldnʼt understand French properly. It shows the absurdity of the image of the system. And it shows also the amount of fake news around those topics.

    And about women, especially, there is an interesting scene with a woman, that says that in the camp nobody really cares about their needs. She really wants to show that migrants are human, in fact, that they are not just numbers for the European Union and in this way this film is very interesting.

    And about women in the media, as I said, during a long period of time, women were not so visible and now we speak more about women. In fact there is a positive prejudice about women because a migrant woman is shown as less dangerous than a man, so that is why they are not always shown. The image of the migrant is often a man, alone rather than a woman with a baby, because people would be more eager to accept migration if they are represented by woman. There is really a manipulation of images regarding the communication about migration.

    Camelia: Yes, I agree. About the movie, I havenʼt seen the movie, I have seen the trailer; when I was documenting for the interview, I have seen the announcement that you were going to moderate the discussion, and after seeing the trailer it struck me, this clash between our mental representation of what migrants should look like and what actual people look like. And you have mentioned that scene where a migrant from Senegal was told “You need to hesitate when you speak French”, because he spoke too good of a French for a migrant, and he said “I have translated Michel Houellebecqʼs work”.

    Ophélie Marrel: Exactly, yes.        

    Camelia: I think this situation can be seen everywhere in Europe, not only in Western countries, that are mainly targeted, people tend to, want to go there, but also here in Romania, for instance we have people getting out of the country and we have people from Asia coming into the country and I started noticing this label. So, it’s something that we need to deal with and see beyond what the media, well not only the media, because we are part of this type of discourse as well.

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, for sure.

    Camelia: Our next question is: Has the CNCDH addressed such representations?

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes. The CNCDH has a mandate as national “rapporteur” on fight against discrimination, human trafficking and people with disabilities for example. As a national rapporteur on fight against discrimination, CNCDH denounces regularly such representations, as they contribute to create either racism or rejection in the society. So, we recommend to change the approach on migration issues and to think differently about the subject. For example, we know that there are many fake news and disinformation about this topic and this spreads anger and fear in the society. I would say one of the main fake news is about the data and statistics. People can have the impression that there are too many people coming on French soil, which is not true because there is a balance with people leaving France every year. Migration raised during the last years but is not as massive as what is said. So, we really try to construct differently, the representation we have on migration, so we contribute to counter misinformation and to provide a human rights-based approach on migration issues. Instead of only talking about expulsion, and having a coercitive approach we will say that it is important to have an approach based on integration, for example. This can change also, the representation we have of migrant people.

    Camelia: It is amazing how powerful these negative representations are on our minds because I think itʼs simplistic and itʼs easier to just take that and not reflect on what is really going on behind these news, yes.

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, exactly.        

    Camelia: So, the next question from this second part is: does geography play a role in making migrants in general, and women migrants in particular, more vulnerable to discrimination and abuse?

    Ophélie Marrel: Well, for this question I donʼt have a complete answer, but yes geography plays a role in migration, in making migrants in general more vulnerable, thatʼs true because the migrants’ ways and histories are different from where the people come from. Regarding  women, they will be more vulnerable to discrimination and abuse when they come from some countries in Africa, for example because they have to stay in Libya on the migration road and we know that they are all imprisoned and will face torture, rape etc. There are migration routes that are far more dangerous than others, in this regard, geography is very important.

    Camelia: Crossing the sea is different than crossing the border, right?

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, exactly. I can add about this topic that the CNCDH will participate at the beginning of October in the Les Rendez-vous de lʼhistoire de Blois, and will participate in two round tables about migration in the Mediterranean Sea.

    Camelia: I have seen the announcement, yes. You will take part in the discussion.

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, weʼll talk about the dangers and human rights violations that migrant people face when they are in the Mediterranean Sea.

    Camelia: Ok, so now for the third section of the interview. As a legal adviser who has been working in the field of international law and migration you are best suited to evaluate the importance of institutions providing the technical expertise to those who need it the most, but also the social impact of their commitment to change the narrative regarding foreign people, thus fighting against the negative connotation attached to the process of migration. 

    In your opinion, what are the main barriers in fighting against race-based and gender-based discrimination in our global world? Changing the legislation would be enough or is it also necessary to change the mind frame of those who design it at a national level?

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, it is important to change the mind frame. In France we can say that the legal framework is quite complete to fight against discrimination. But one of the main problems comes from the application of the law and its knowledge. Our reports reveal that people are facing unnecessary barriers to access justice and that vulnerable people are not being supported to bring discrimination claims, for example, and initiatives are being taken to fight discrimination on the basis of race or gender, and the law has already evolved considerably in the recent years. The challenge is how to apply the law. The law has to be known by the citizens but also by the authorities. It is very important to develop a rights-based approach and to target the people that are concerned with those policies.

    Camelia: I was thinking that we have the same problem, we have adopted the legislation, the European legislation on gender discrimination itʼs amazing, the problem is that no one actually follows that legislation. For instance, at the University there isn’t one complaint regarding gender discrimination, however, when NGOs conduct their own inquiries anonymously, they come across so many cases, unreported because the victims are afraid that they might lose their positions and so on. As a law specialist, how do you think we could overcome this situation? Could you see a solution?

    Ophélie Marrel: The CNCDH has been drafting a report on discrimination for more than 30 years and it denounces what we call the dark number (chiffre noir), which is the difference between the number of victims of discrimination or racism, and the number of complaints before the police, and then of Court decisions. For example, in 2020, there were zero condemnations on discrimination basis in France, zero in the whole year which is impossible because we know that every day people are facing discrimination. There is really something to change. We have to do education on human rights on this topic. It is already made by some NGOs etc, but maybe itʼs not enough and every actor has to do it, not only the NGOs or the civil society, but also the police, the lawyers, the judges, everyone has to take this into consideration and really educate on that if you want the law to be really applied.

    Camelia: I agree, us as individuals have to stand up for ourselves if we see a situation and really just react, I think thatʼs the solution.

    The next question would be: Relying on your experience, what are the challenges that women migrants are facing today, given the post-Covid restrictions and the new political situation in Ukraine?

    Ophélie Marrel: Well we know that crisis situations exacerbate precarity and insecurity for women and that they may be one of the first victims. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 there were a lot of data and reports from the ground, from the front line that have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence have intensified. I think this was really one of the main challenges, even if there are things done to prevent violence against women but, during this Covid pandemic and the lock down it was really a big issue.

    And concerning Ukraine, the humanitarian crisis has caused refugee flows and with really unique gender and age characteristics, because we know that 90% of those fleeing Ukraine are women and children, so this is really specific and the risk of exploitation for human trafficking is very high, because they are vulnerable women and children and there is really a big challenge to identity potential victims of human trafficking. Because France faced a great  challenge, about housing Ukrainian refugees: there were some very positive initiatives from people, from citizens, with good intentions, but there were also initiatives from traffickers who said that they would provide housing for families, to women and then use them for human trafficking. So, thatʼs one of the biggest challenges related to the situation in Ukraine.

    Camelia: Yes, we have discussed this with Professor Dalia Leinarte, who told us awful things about this, the idea that these women who are fleeing the war can become victims of human trafficking. Nevertheless, I have seen some better situations here in Romania, they have created some classes for the Ukrainian children, not to miss school, and they have started to allow adults to find work, if they want to. But, yes the consequences are just overwhelming.

    I have a final question, but before that, out of curiosity mostly: I was really excited about this interview as you are a specialist of the law because I come from a family of lawyers – my father, my sister – and I wanted to ask you, because here in Romania we have a positive stereotype about doctors and lawyers, since these two professional categories bring relief, in a way, so I was curious: is it the same in France, with someone being a lawyer, is there a positive connotation around the profession?

    Ophélie Marrel: In fact, there are many different types of lawyers, there are, you could say lawyers of the ground, that defend “real” people, on the ground and there are other lawyers,  for instance in Paris, that are more counsellors which means that they don’t plea before a Court. This is another way of being a lawyer but it’s true that is a fascinating profession because you really can defend people concretely, you are on the ground, engaged and you feel useful, I think. So, yes itʼs a profession with a good reputation I would say, like doctors!

    Camelia: Yes, and the amount of knowledge that you need to be aware of …

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, itʼs true. And during your professional life you always have to be trained and to learn new things, because there are many evolutions in law and you have to be aware of the societyʼs problems.

    Camelia: So, our last question would be: What do you expect WEMov to bring to you?

    Ophélie Marrel: The CNCDH is very pleased to be a stakeholder of the WEMov network and we are very pleased to have met you and also we were very pleased to participate in the meeting with the students, in June [WEMov’s first training school]. And the Commission really hopes to be able to carry out its advocacy in favour of human rights and particularly regarding migrant women, within the network and we hope that our recommendations will be endorsed by a large majority of actors. The more actors are carrying those recommendations, the more they can be heard by the public authorities and so we can be more useful. As I said, we have a human rights education mission and we really hope to establish all the partnerships with students, as we will do with the Slovenian students in November, in order to publicize our work and to raise awareness on our recommendations and on the important human rights issues. We really hope to have a long collaboration with the movement.

    Camelia: Ok. Thank you so much for sharing and for taking the time for the interview! If Marie would like to join us.

    Marie Ruiz: Thank you so much, it was fascinating listening to all these, very technical specificities that we don’t always know about and they have such an impact. And I agree with you, I think the most important is integration and especially with the introduction of passports there has been increasing border control and fear of incoming migrants, when, I agree with you, you have to be careful with figures. Because if you balance this with the outgoing migrants and see that we are in a globalized world, today people move in and out, then there is not such an increase and there is nothing to be scared about. So, you know, most migrants are educated and they bring new skills and knowledge to our country, so…

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, itʼs like a historical movement, when you see the history of civilisations people moved, so yes.

    Marie: Yes, we should just bear in mind that is a natural, maybe the most natural, you know, human behaviour.

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes.

    Marie: So, thank you so much! It was fascinating really. I really enjoyed this interview, very clear. It is going to be very interesting to read for our readers, our students, our colleagues, so thank you again!

    Ophélie Marrel: Thank you!

    Camelia: Thank you!

    Marie: Thank you Camelia for the questions!

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes, thank you, because the questions were quite technical and very concrete, so thank you, it was a very interesting exercise to do, so…

    Marie: I hope you enjoyed it!

    Ophélie Marrel: Yes.   ​