World Europe

As refugees traverse France's Roya Valley, locals ask: Should we help them?

spirit of humanity

Several residents of the region are facing charges for supplying aid to migrants who crossed over from Italy. They say they feel obligated to help, especially as the government does not.

Nadia Joubert, who is using a pseudonym because she is a civil servant helping illegal immigrants, says migrants show up here, in Roya Valley, France, after walking across the Italian border.
Sara Miller Llana
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Caption

Nadia Joubert treks along the rocky paths of this town perched in the Maritime Alps, first dropping off extra toilet paper at a neighbor’s home where a migrant has just left. She heads deeper into the valley to pay a visit to a couple who agreed to house two undocumented Eritrean teenagers until they can figure out where they should go next.

Targeted by police and the prosecutor’s office, she knows her work is viewed as a form of civil disobedience, and poses a personal risk. She has transported illegal migrants in her car, an action that has resulted in jail for others in her group, Roya Citoyenne.

“It’s really more and more difficult to help refugees cross the border,” says Ms. Joubert, who is going by a pseudonym so her job as a civil servant is not compromised. “We don’t want to go to jail.”

Welcome to the Roya Valley, where a form of resistance is gathering force on the front lines of Europe’s migration crisis.

As countries in the European Union have squabbled over the refugees and migrants fleeing civil war and poverty, France has avoided taking a definitive line. But as increasingly desperate migrants cross through the country – here climbing through the Alps, relying on locals for safe passage and shelter – the French people themselves are left to find their own balance between compassion and staying within the boundaries of laws crafted to keep borders secure and citizens safe.

And many locals in Roya Valley, like Bernard Duchatelle, say they refuse to follow government policy with which they disagree. He takes inspiration from 19th century American essayist Henry David Thoreau, and specifically his refusal to pay taxes over the Mexican-American war. “I really believe that as a citizen, if you believe your government doesn’t show morality then you have to go against your government,” he says. “This is real morality."

'People are living in misery'

Though it has not taken the hard line against migrants of countries like Hungary or Poland, France has accepted only a fraction of the 30,000 asylum seekers it agreed to take – and shut the door on those trying to transit France to reach countries farther north. That has left locals here to find their own direction on how to respond to a problem that is visible from their doorsteps. Twenty miles south sits the Italian town, Ventimiglia, where migrants have gotten stuck behind border controls that were reinstalled two years ago.

Jacob Turcotte

On a frigid evening, dozens of migrants from Eritrea, Sudan, and the Gambia gather in a dark parking lot in front of the train tracks where Roya Valley volunteers arrive nightly. One migrant, a hulking 28-year-old from The Gambia with no socks, his heels hanging out of too-small shoes, asks if they have a proper pair. The volunteers shake their heads “no” and offer what they do have: blankets, freshly cooked meals, and piping chai tea.

In the 1940s, the Roya Valley gave refuge to those escaping Hitler’s Nazis and the Vichy regime, and many residents here today say their effort comes from an historic sense of solidarity. But authorities have increasingly questioned their motivations, and police are vigilant. On the return to France, on a back road away from the high-end Riviera resorts, cars are stopped continuously, including this correspondent’s. The National Police demand to see the trunk, to make sure there are no migrants hiding inside.

The icon of Roya resistance is an olive grower named Cedric Herrou, who has received intense media attention after being arrested for his role in helping undocumented migrants move along the trail. The prosecutor at his trial in January asked for an eight-month suspended sentence, and the verdict is expected on Feb. 10.

In the meantime, he was placed in police custody again last week, according to Roya Citoyenne activists who issued a bristling statement against police action they say is escalating tensions across the valley. They say the law is ambiguous, and that public officials, under pressure from the far right, are trying to cow them.

“They are trying to intimidate us,” says Pierre-Alain Mannoni, a professor in Nice who faced trial for transporting three Eritrean girls seeking medical treatment. He was cleared of all charges Jan. 6; the judge said it was clear he was not working for financial gain, but instead within the law to protect the dignity or physical integrity of foreigners. But the prosecutor appealed the decision. On the same day, four others, including Gerard Bonnet, known as Gibi, were arrested for transporting migrants in France.

“The migration crisis is a European problem, a global problem, it’s not my problem,” says Mr. Bonnet, as he hands out meals and blankets to young migrants in Ventimiglia. “My problem is the people in front of me are living in misery.” He says laws that obstruct their humanitarian work should be changed, and their protest can help do so, just like protests changed laws on abortion or gay marriage. He faces trial May 16.

Activists say that fears that terrorists could slip through the border have been manipulated for political gain.

“It is a dangerous amalgam,” Mr. Mannoni says at a cafe in Nice, not far from where a truck plowed into revelers, killing 86 in July, an event had “nothing to do” with the refugee crisis. Joubert say it’s possible that terrorists use this trail, maybe even ending up in her own home. “I’m not going to say it’s impossible,” she says. But as a French citizen her job is to address human rights. “It’s the French state that should be in charge of investigating people,” she says. “It’s not our job to do that.”

Against the law

But at a cafe in Mr. Herrou’s village, Breil-sur-Roya, south of Saorge, not everyone hails those aiding refugees as heroes. Some are angered by the media attention. “What [Herrou] did is against the law,” says one who asked not to be named. “And why should we have to deal with this problem when Saudi Arabia and Qatar are doing nothing?”

In Saorge, Joubert says townspeople are divided: As some of them hide migrants from the authorities, others call the police to tip them off about the migrants' presence. Indeed, Joubert wonders how happy her neighbors are over the 30-odd migrants she estimates she has housed in two years. Still, she says that Herrou’s case has inspired an increasingly strong network of volunteers across the region and lawyers to investigate how minors, who by law should be protected where they are found, are instead being deported over the border.

Up the hill, in a home only reachable by foot that looks onto snow-capped mountains dividing Italy from France, live Elisabetta Pannelli Tapsell, her husband, Simon, and their four cats. Now they have two Eritrean teens with them, Seare and Filmon. Neither migrant speaks English well, so the two pairs have gotten to know one another through activities like cooking Eritrean bread and drawing – Filmon recently drew a picture of a brown hand with the word “Love” written on it. It is now hanging on the Tapsells' wall.

“My husband and I had been helping by giving money, food, clothes, etc. etc. to the people in Ventimiglia,” Ms. Tapsell says. But when the two teens showed up on Dec. 30 in Saorge – part of a group of 13 migrants, 9 of them minors, who walked along the train tracks from Italy – she made a split-second decision. She compares it to driving down the road and seeing an accident, and deciding right there to stop or not. “It was not a political decision. It was like ‘yes or no, now.’ … That’s it,” she says.

Now they are trying to find a way to get the 16- and 17-year-olds to a courthouse where they can apply for asylum and get proper schooling. It's not easy, even though the pair aren't really "in hiding." Nonetheless, if one of their group tries to drive them, he or she could be arrested. If the boys leave on their own, the couple fears that they could get picked up by police and sent back to Italy.

It doesn’t feel right, Ms. Tapsell says. “Last night I felt really, really weird. I was very, very nervous, and I felt like ‘what is this? What is happening? Why am I hiding people? Why do I have to hide people in my house?” she says.

The feelings set in after she was invited for a dinner and decided to go. She asked the boys to lock themselves in, to not answer the door. “And I felt, ‘wow, what am I living?’ I don’t want to live this. You know, I don’t want for them to live this.”