How can I help illegal immigrants

migration : Aid to refugees can be expensive in France

In the French community of Briançon, locals are currently concerned about legal risks as they have to help more and more migrants who come to France from Italy via the Alps.

"Some people have been arrested and others known to have helped migrants have been pressured," said Bruno, a ski station worker who lives in Névache, a small village near the Italian border.

A solidarity movement has sprung up in Névache to help migrants who risk their lives by crossing the Alps. More and more migrants are coming to France from Italy via the Col de l’Echelle. “In winter I have absolutely no doubts or qualms about that. No law will stop me from helping a vulnerable person in the mountains, ”said Bruno.

However, there is a fine line between helping a person at risk and helping them enter France illegally. During the past winter, volunteers in Briançon kept searching the mountains to help those who might need help.

While this has helped to save lives on the one hand, some citizens who have volunteered for migrants have also come into contact with smuggling networks on the other. The volunteers are quickly identified by the networks in Italy, which then sell, for example, the telephone numbers of the volunteers to migrants.

It's a balancing act that blurs the lines between humanitarian aid and working with smugglers' rings, which can lead to legal risks.

Taken advantage of solidarity

Solidarity is sometimes exploited by smugglers who take the route across the Alps. "Sometimes refugees who have arrived at the Briançon home even believe that their overnight stay here is part of the package that the smugglers paid for," explains one of the volunteers who helps at the local refugee center.

Under current French law, people can be prosecuted for aiding and abetting illegal entry, transit and stay of illegal immigrants. An exception is made if assistance has been given to maintain the dignity of the person entering the country and is not remunerated in any way.

However, assistance may not be given when entering France or onward travel, but only when staying on site - i.e. with accommodation, food or medical help.

The prosecution of smugglers is to be ensured with provisions from the Immigration and Residence Act and the asylum law, which provide for prison sentences of up to five years and fines of 30,000 euros.

In fact, these laws have also been used against “normal” citizens who help migrants. One of them is Cédric Herrou, a farmer from the Roya Valley. Herrou was arrested several times in 2016 and 2017 for helping over 200 migrants from Italy to France.

Martine Landry, an Amnesty International activist, was also arrested for helping two 15-year-old Guinean migrants come to France. Your process begins this week.

New draft law is being examined in parliament

The French National Assembly is currently examining a new draft law on asylum and migration, which will also reconsider the "solidarity offense" offense. Some MEPs have tabled an amendment on the solidarity offense to introduce a derogation to facilitate travel within France. In practice, most of the people charged with violating the solidarity clause have actually been arrested for helping migrants travel within French territory, rather than helping them with illegal immigration.

With the support of President Emmanuel Macron and members of his party “La République en Marche”, discussions about changes in the solidarity offense in the National Assembly were made possible. However, when considering the changes in early June in the Senate, where there is a Conservative majority, it is less likely that the new handling of solidarity offenses will be adopted.

European citizens' initiative against solidarity crimes

A debate about the solidarity offense is also slowly emerging at European level. Current European law is clearer and more flexible than French law. A European directive passed in 2002 on aid to illegal entry, transit and unauthorized residence lays down the minimum requirements for sanctions in the case of “aid to profit”.

Under French law, however, the notion of “remuneration” for assistance provided is not necessarily limited to monetary payments. This much broader definition therefore also enables the criminal prosecution of citizens who have helped migrants without receiving any financial remuneration.

Meanwhile, the EU directive also stipulates that member states have the right to a full acquittal of citizens in cases where humanitarian aid has been provided to refugees - a provision that France is currently not applying in the form envisaged.

“There is no discussion of the solidarity crime issue at European level,” criticized Sylvie Guillaume, French socialist MEP and Vice-President of the European Parliament. She asks: “There must be a French and European dynamic on this issue. We need a European Parliament resolution on this issue in order to have a more European approach. Because today the laws in force in Europe are very different. "

However, different views between left and right and recurring tensions on the migrant issue between the countries of Eastern and Western Europe will most likely lead to difficult discussions at European level.

Guillaume also admits, “I see the risk. If we open this debate, we risk that solidarity crimes will be punished even more in the future. But a debate about it is necessary. "

While the discussion in Brussels has practically not yet started, a European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) could provide an impetus. The initiative launched in February calls for the end of the solidarity offense as a criminal offense and is currently trying to collect a million signatures from European citizens for it. If the initiative is successful, the EU Commission is expected to respond in the form of legislative proposals.

Translation: Tim Steins.

Published by EurActiv.

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