French ask: Should it be a crime to help illegal immigrants?
High-profile cases and a new movie have sparked debate about the boundaries between compassion and civic duty.
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She works with a volunteer group, Education without Borders, that helps hide undocumented immigrants with French families to keep them out of the reach of the police. Her students have also staged rallies at courthouses, most recently this month, where expulsion cases are being heard.Skip to next paragraph
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The help she provides immigrants could get her into trouble with the law, but that is not a big concern. "I'm not really afraid," said Ms. Durantet. "They could come and get me. But I would call all my friends and they would call their friends. There is real public support for this."
Much of the public discussion has centered on how the government enforces a 1945 law that makes it a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison, to aid people living in or transiting France illegally.
Mr. Besson said it is applied against human-trafficking rings, not charities or individuals who simply provide humanitarian relief to undocumented migrants and refugees. But there have been scattered prosecutions over the last few years.
In 2004, for example, Jean-Claude Lenoir, the vice president of a Calais charity that distributes food and clothing to migrants, was convicted of violating the law by picking up money orders for several of them at the local post office. He has also been arrested on charges of interfering with police raids on the makeshift encampment behind the dunes, a squalid meeting point for migrants trying to stow away on ships and trucks transporting goods to Britain. In the course of defending himself, Mr. Lenoir said recently, he has learned that police have eavesdropped on his telephone conversations.
More often, it appears, the law may be invoked as a means of harassing people who regularly defend, support, and assist migrants.
"Since around 2002, we've seen a real increase in the hostility of the authorities," says Laurent Giovannoni, secretary-general of La Cimade, a national advocacy group that provides legal help to immigrants in detention. "Almost every month, someone is taken in for questioning."
The authorities should distinguish between simple acts of kindness and assistance that facilitates the lucrative business of people-smuggling, according to Ludovic Duprey, the chief prosecutor in the northern French town of Hazebrouck.
"But there have been exceptions," he acknowledged in an interview with La Voix du Nord, a regional newspaper. "We've all heard of people convicted for having hid immigrants in their homes."
The case of Pouille, who was recharging migrants' cellphones, illustrates how murky each situation can get.
When the border police questioned her, she said, they reproached her for "indiscriminately" helping the migrants. According to her account, she should have checked whether any of them were using their phones to arrange an illegal border crossing.
"But I don't make the distinction between smugglers and the other poor wretches when I provide this service, or [when] I bring them their clean clothes from the laundromat," she told reporters. "I'm not the police."