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‘The Alps have always protected people,’ says Frenchman convicted of helping migrants

Siegfried Modola, REUTERS file picture | Migrants walk through snow as they attempt to cross part of the Alps mountain range from Italy into France

When far-right activists last spring descended on the French town of Briançon to prevent migrants from illegally crossing the border, some Alp residents quickly joined forces to stop them. “These mountains have always protected people,” they insist.

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“The Briançon 7” - a group of four French, one Swiss, one Swiss-Belgian and one Italian - propelled into the spotlight in April after having taken part in a spontaneous march of solidarity in which they escorted some 20 migrants across the French-Italian border. On Thursday, they were convicted by a southeastern district court for assisting the migrants in illicitly entering France in an “organised” manner.

“It’s ridiculous!,” Mathieu Burellier, one of the “Briançon 7” activists told FRANCE 24 in an interview. “It’s out of the question to allow a group of fascists to come and roam around here around our homes, leaving people to die up there in the mountains. We couldn’t let that happen.”

Burellier, who was also convicted of rebellion, was handed a four-month prison sentence along with another Frenchman, while the five others were given suspended six-month sentences.

Their convictions have sparked outrage among rights groups, who have launched petitions and staged numerous protests to have the ruling annulled by the court.

Pierre Isnard Dupuy, La Cimade | The April 22, 2018, solidarity march in which locals and activists escorted migrants across the French-Italian border in the Alps

Locals turned activists

The group’s “act of solidarity” is the second high-profile case in France in little over a year in which locals step in to try to help migrants. Last year, Cédric Herrou, an organic olive grower from southern France, was fined and handed a four-month suspended sentence for helping some 200 migrants illegally enter France from Italy. He also sheltered many of them at his farm. On December 12, however, France’s top appeals court overturned Herrou’s sentence. This came after the French Constitutional Council in July ruled that people cannot be prosecuted for helping migrants in distress, citing France’s emblem principle of solidarity. But the constitutional council ruling does not cover the act of directly facilitating illegal border crossings.

Burellier, who is a Briançon resident himself, said the 15-kilometre march over the French Alps occurred “totally spontaneously”, and came as a response to a group of activists from the French far-right “Génération Identitaire” and the European anti-migrant “Defend Europe” turning up in the tiny town of 12,000.

“Some of these guys had driven in from Germany and Slovenia. They started blocking the border on the Saturday and word quickly spread around town that they were out hunting migrants. There were also reports that some migrants had been beaten up,” 35-year-old Burellier said. “We didn’t know what to do. We had the choice of either trying to get rid of these neo-Nazis by confronting them by force, which we didn’t want to, or to find some other way to protect the migrants,” he said, noting that night-time temperatures dropped to between -5 and -10 degrees Celsius at the time.

Romain Lafabregue, AFP | Activists from the far-right groups Génération Identitaire and Defend Europe erect an anti-migrant barrier near Briancon, France, on April 21, 2018

“Three migrants died up there last winter. We can’t let these mountains become a cemetery.”

By Sunday morning, Alp residents on both sides of the border had settled on providing the migrants safe passage by escorting them over a mountain pass. “All in all there were like 200 of us; migrants, Italians, French and Swiss.”

Partisan heritage

“It’s part of our [Hautes-Alpes] partisan history and heritage to help out those in need. These mountains have always protected people,” he said, referring to the region’s long history of providing refuge for people persecuted for their religious or political views, especially during World War II.

Burellier, who claims he never crossed the border himself but joined the march once it had already reached France, said he was never worried that there would be any legal repercussions to the rally.

“It was a demonstration. I’ve taken part in hundreds in my life, so no, I was neither worried nor afraid,” he said.

He said he was shocked when he learned that he faced charges over it, and stunned when the court this week finally delivered its verdict.

“The court had two choices: to side with those advocating solidarity, or condemn people [in need] to death. It chose death. It’s a clear message for all the people in the Briançon valley who show solidarity,” he said, adding that the “Briançon 7” will appeal the ruling.

In the beginning of December, a number of aid groups, including Amnesty International, Anafé, La Cimade and Doctors Without Borders, issued a warning about the potentially deadly situation for migrants trying to cross the French-Italian border via the Alps this winter.

“More than 30 people have had to be rescued since the beginning of winter a month ago, and we fear deaths. Some people don’t have mobile phones or sufficient clothing,” they said in a joint statement, also lambasting authorities for threatening people with penalties for helping them.

Burellier said that despite his conviction, he is prepared to take the risks. “It’s already -17 degrees Celsius out there and we’ve got to do what we can to prevent more deaths.”

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