The Criminalisation of Kindness?

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It has been several months since the demolition of the Calais ‘Jungle’, but unsurprisingly the crisis continues. Thousands of refugees and migrants across France continue to live in squalid conditions, makeshift camps and abandoned buildings.

The French government has repeatedly acknowledged its ‘duty to receive’ and ‘give shelter’ to refugees, but this has been met with practically no effort to find suitable accommodation to rehouse the migrants. These reassurances are sometimes swiftly followed by force, as was the case in Paris in October when police bulldozed a makeshift camp under the Stalingrad Bridge. Some were rounded up into detention whilst many were left to the streets, their possessions destroyed.

This is not all. There has been an influx of court hearings against French citizens found helping refugees and migrants in various ways. Houssam El Assimi, 33, of Le Collectif La Chapelle Debout, a Paris based organisation giving aid to refugees, had been helping migrants navigate the French immigration system and translating French and Arabic. He was arrested in September during police raids on a Paris camp for ‘violence against persons holding public authority’ and he now faces up to three years in prison and €45,000 (over £38,000) in fines.

There have been similar issues further south, particularly in the Roya Valley through which many migrants pass as they cross the border between Italy and France. Cédric Herrou, 37, faced trial earlier in January  for ‘helping undocumented foreigners enter, move about and reside’ in France, and could be sentenced to up to five years in prison and a €30,000 (£25,500) fine if convicted.

Herrou, who sheltered migrants in an unused holiday village and was arrested months earlier for transporting 8 Eritreans across the border by car, continues to defend his actions on humanitarian grounds. The motorway has been fatal for many migrants. Herrou has criticised the government’s failed attempts to enforce border controls, leaving many vulnerable to injury and even death. It is for this reason that he intervenes. ‘Our role is to help people overcome danger, and the danger is this border’ he says.

Under Article L622-1 of France’s immigration law, anyone who ‘facilitates or attempts to facilitate the illegal entry, movement or residence of a foreigner in France shall be punished by imprisonment for five years and a fine of €30,000’. This law is in place to prosecute human traffickers and those profiting from helping refugees. Yet many cases are being pursued in which no financial or personal gain is apparent.

In response to the surge in arrests, more than 100 NGOs, charities and labour unions released a manifesto this month under the banner Délinquants Solidaires denouncing the actions of the authorities and government in regard to the treatment of migrants and those found helping them. Despite the pledge of the then Interior Minister Manuel Valls in 2012 that ‘Our law cannot punish those who, in good faith, want to give a helping hand,’ Délinquants Solidaires consider that now, more than ever, showing solidarity is treated as a crime.

It must be noted that arrests of this genre do not always result in lasting prosecution. Pierre Mannoni, 45, recently had six month suspended prison sentence quashed on appeal. He was arrested after being caught transporting 3 Eritrean girls to Nice so they could reach medical care. Regardless of the outcome, lengthy judicial procedures of this strain often leave the defendants financially and emotionally drained.

This subject continues to be divisive in France, which will hold its presidential elections later this year. The recent surge to the far-right in both the USA and Britain alongside the growing popularity of French far-right candidate Marine le-Pen provides a bleak forecast for those hoping for a relaxation of the law. In the meantime, refugees continue to face winter on the streets of France while the government flounder to find a long-term housing solution.

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