Parisians protest for their right to help illegal immigrants
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Thousands of protesters gathered in Paris and several other French cities on Wednesday, April 8, to protest against French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s demand that at least 5,000 people be arrested for helping illegal immigrants in France.
In Paris, more than 1,000 people met on Place Saint Michel despite the rain, answering the call of 21 human rights organizations, including Emmaüs France, the Cimade and the Ligue des droits de l’Homme (French Human Rights league).
Dozens of protesters took turns on the stand to “accuse themselves” of the “criminal offense of solidarity”. All wore a bright yellow sticker that proclaimed: “I’m a helper, and I’m ready to face charges”.
The issue had recently made headlines with the release of ‘Welcome’, a movie by Philippe Lioret which tells the story of a lifeguard in Calais facing charges after helping an Iranian Kurd immigrant cross the Channel sea to Britain.
The protesters are especially angry that the government fixed ‘quotas’ of arrests for illegal immigrants and those who help them. “The government wants to arrest 5,500 ‘helpers’ by 2011, so we’re here to give President Nicolas Sarkozy a hand. Today he can get us all at once, two years before his deadline!” declares Teddy Roudaut of Emmaüs France.
Wednesday’s protest was sparked by several recent arrests involving NGO volunteer workers in France. On February 16, police arrested an illegal immigrant sheltered in an Emmaüs emergency residence. They later raided the building, looking for other illegal immigrants, and arrested the centre’s manager for sheltering them. On February 18, police raided the home of a soup kitchen volunteer worker in Calais who organises food and clothing donations for the dozens of homeless migrants hoping for a chance to cross the Channel. She was also arrested, notably for having recharged the cellphone batteries of several of the illegal immigrants.
“After these incidents, we realized that the term ‘helper’ used in article L662-1 of the ‘Code for the entry and residence of alien citizens in France’ is far too vague, meaning that ordinary citizens who are showing their generosity can be considered in the same way as human smugglers and exploiters,” explains Teddy Roudaut. Human rights organisations have proposed a joint amendment to the law which would clearly distinguish between those who deal with illegal immigrants for money and those who help them out of humanitarian concerns.
French Immigration Minister Eric Besson declared on the morning of the protests that “there is no criminal offence of solidarity, that’s a myth,” claiming that the ‘helpers’ targeted by article L622 are “those who actively participate in illegal migration networks” and not those who help illegal immigrants “out of kindness”. But NGO leaders claim the distinction isn’t clearly made, and that their militants face “increasing pressure” from police authorities.
Those present at the protest recounted how they, at some point or another, extended a helping hand towards illegal immigrants. One young student explained she let Chechen migrants camping out in an abandoned building near her home take showers in her apartment. Others use their language or legal skills to guide asylum-seekers through the French administrative imbroglio.
An elected representative of Paris’s 15th district even claimed that she used her own mother’s address to provide some migrants with the postal address necessary for paperwork procedures. A Malian asylum-seeker spoke up, full of emotion, to thank the crowd for their “solidarity”, and was warmly cheered in return.
“It is completely unacceptable that authorities try to prevent us from simply showing some humanity towards others,” says Alain Bosc, president of the Cimade’s Paris branch. For all the NGO members present at the protest, illegal immigrants are above all human beings in need, isolated and destitute. Helping them, they claim, is their duty as citizens, and certainly not a criminal offence.