French law zooms in on solidarity offence

Volunteer Vincent checks the hand temperature of migrants who just arrived at the shelter reception of the organization 'Tous Migrants' (All Migrants) in Briancon, southeastern France, 16 January 2018 Migrants still attempt to cross the Alps into France from Italy, despite extreme and dangerous weather conditions. [ EPA-EFE/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO]

Helping illegal migrants can come at a cost in France, where the notion of solidarity offence is currently under revision. At the European level, debates on the issue have only just started. EURACTIV.fr reports.

In the French commune of Briançon, locals are currently concerned about legal risks as they have been helping an ever-growing number of migrants cross the Alps from Italy.

“Some people have been detained and pressure has been put on other people who are known for having helped migrants,” said Bruno, a ski station employee who lives in Névache, a small village not far from the border with Italy.

A solidarity movement has emerged in Névache to help migrants who have risked their lives to cross the Alps. The village has witnessed an increasing number of migrants crossing the Col de l’Echelle to arrive in France from Italy. “In winter, I have no qualms. No law will stop me from helping an endangered person in the mountain,” said Bruno.

Névache and Briançon – left to deal with migrants on their own

Following the closure of other roads, migrants embark on a clandestine Italian-French crossing in the Alps by the Col de l’Echelle. Local residents, haunted by fears of discovering dead bodies once the snow melts, are now getting organised to welcome them. EURACTIV.fr reports.

However, there is a fine line between helping an endangered person and helping someone cross illegally into French territory. During the winter, volunteers in Briançon searched the mountains to help those who might need help.

Though this helped save lives, some citizens who volunteered to help migrants have also come into contact with smuggling networks. The volunteers are quickly identified by those networks in Italy, who then sell the volunteers’ phone numbers to migrants.

It’s a balancing act in which the lines are blurred between humanitarian aid and collaboration with smuggling rings and can lead to legal risks.

Chain of solidarity

The chain of solidarity is therefore sometimes exploited by smugglers whose numbers are rising on the route over the Alps. “Sometimes exiles who have arrived in the refuge in Briançon believe that their overnight stay is part of the package they paid smugglers for to arrive in France,” said one of the volunteers who helps at the refuge.

Under the current French law, people can be prosecuted for facilitating unauthorised entry, transit and residence of illegal migrants. An exception is made if help was provided to preserve the person’s dignity and is not remunerated in any way.

However, it cannot involve helping to enter French territory or travel further but only the stay (accommodation, food, medical help etc.).

The provision from the code of entry and residence of foreign persons and the right to asylum, which carries a prison sentence of up to 5 years and a €30,000 fine, is used to prosecute smugglers.

However, this provision has also been used against citizens who helped migrants such as Cédric Herrou, a farmer in the Roya Valley. Herrou was arrested several times in 2016 and 2017 for having helped over 200 migrants cross into France from Italy.

Martine Landry, an Amnesty International activist, has also been arrested for helping two 15-year-old Guinean migrants cross into France from Italy and her trial will start end May.

The French National Assembly is currently examining a draft law on asylum and migration where the solidarity offence is also under review. Some deputies have adopted an amendment to change the solidarity offence to include an exemption for facilitating travel. In practice, most people prosecuted for breaching the solidarity provision have been arrested for helping migrants travel within the French territory.

Discussions on changes in the solidarity offence at the National Assembly have been made possible because of the support of President Emmanuel Macron and deputies from his LREM party. However, in the Senate, where there is a right-wing majority, there is no guarantee that the solidarity offence will pass when examined at the start of June.

European Citizens’ Initiative

At the European level, the debate on the solidarity offence is slowly emerging. Current European laws are more flexible than French laws. A European directive adopted in 2002 on the facilitation of unauthorised entry, transit and residence lays the minimum rules for penalties in the case of aid for-profit.

Under French law, the notion of remuneration concerned is not necessarily the monetary nature. This broader notion has made it possible to prosecute citizens who have helped migrants without receiving any monetary rewards.

The Directive also states that member states have the right to a total exemption in cases of humanitarian aid, a provision which is currently not used by France.

“At the European level, there is a lack of discussion on the issue of solidarity offence,” said Sylvie Guillaume, French socialist MEP and vice-president of the European Parliament. “Now, there needs to be a French and European dynamic on the issue.”

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“We need a European Parliament resolution on the subject to have a more framed European approach, today the laws applied in Europe are very diverse. And I am well aware of the risk this could entail,” Guillaume said.

Opposing views between left and right, as well as recurring tensions on the migrant issue between countries in Eastern and Western Europe, will most likely lead to difficult discussions. ”By opening this debate, we risk ending up with a more punitive definition of the solidarity offence. But a debate on the matter is necessary.

The debate has barely started in Brussels but a boost could come from a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). Launched in February, the initiative calls for the end of the solidarity offence and is currently trying to collect a million signatures from European citizens.

If the initiative is successful, the Commission is expected to provide a legislative response.

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