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Migration and Policy Change in Southern France

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

We live in a globalized world interconnected through technology, mass media and the movement of goods, ideas and people. This last element has been a point of strife for decades, where the movement of people away from areas of war and violence lead to immigration crises causing countries of destination to often respond to the overwhelming number of people with harsher immigration policies. Here in the U.S. we see these policies manifest in the creation of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the development of inhumane detention centers, deportations, family separations and with it an ideology that erases humanity from the individual seeking safety and shelter.

With this profile I hope to restore some humanity to these individuals merely by shedding light on the brave journeys they take across oceans and borders. I also hope to illustrate their journeys in a new light, one that empowers them and those that aid their border crossings through a subaltern analysis of asylum-seekers' movement and activist action. Many of the talented students in this Creative Inquiry have focused their studies on migration, detention and movement in the U.S. and their incredible projects can be viewed on this webpage. I will be taking you abroad to Southern France, in the hopes of enlightening the measures taken by asylum-seekers and activists in another corner of the world to show that migration abroad is not so different. Hearing stories of lived experiences from across the globe can help us empathize with the people living these experiences and hopefully bring their humanity back into the dialogue.

Sunset on the coastal shores of Ventimiglia, a view that has surely been shared by many refugees as they continue their journeys into France. Courtesy Lily Haeberle.

This story begins on the coastal shores of Ventimiglia, Italy, spreads across the border to Menton, France and up the mountains to Breil-sur-Roya. The Menton-Ventimiglia border is a difficult spot for migrants attempting to continue their journeys through France (they typically hope to end up in Germany or the U.K.) The easiest pathway from Italy into France is by train, but France’s harsh immigration policies relying on the Dublin regulations and other French regulations have manifested into train sweeps by riot police from France’s Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) and members of the Direction Centrale de la Police aux Frontières (DCPAF). They mount every train at the Menton-Garavan station arriving from Ventimiglia and pull anyone off who matches an African or Middle Eastern profile for document checks. If they fail to provide proper identification and documentation they are loaded into a police van and driven back over the border to Italy. The Dublin Regulation authorized removal of non-documented migrants back to their EU country of entry to process asylum applications. (This regulation has come under harsh criticism by human rights and refugee councils claiming these transfers often fail in providing efficient and fair care and trials to asylum seekers.) Many migrants have attempted the crossing dozens of times, always facing capture. However, the constant displacement back to Italy does not blur the image of freedom and movement that lies across the border.

The persistent border crossing of these refugees can be viewed as actions of a disempowered group resisting authority and in turn reasserting their own power. The perseverance and strength of migrants cannot go unseen in migration discussions, as they make up the force behind immigration activist movements. The hope of one day successfully entering France remains the driving force in the influx of asylum-seekers to France (aided by the help of grassroots activists organizations that will be discussed shortly). Perceiving migrant movement as a way to regain power in a system that consistently silences and dehumanizes them is important. What is equally important is the amplification of their voices that activist organizations provide. In France, just as in the U.S., national politics often only view immigration in economic terms and neglect the humanitarian responsibility to aid those in need. Asylum-seekers are humans with families, jobs, years of education, hopes and dreams that have made the difficult decision to leave everything behind just to stay alive. National governments time and time again forget, or ignore, that these humans are deserving of equal protection and chance to build a life.

I wanted to highlight the migration movement in Southern France specifically because it’s been headed by a single man, Cédric Herrou, which is unlike most organizations we see in the U.S. Herrou, a French farmer who led a humanitarian transformation in Breil-sur-Roya, created a camp for migrants on his property. Over time as his camp became overwhelmed with people, he collaborated with the local activist group Roya Citoyenne to form a collective of French citizens who took matters into their own hands at the failure of their government to protect the people seeking asylum. Herrou has helped hundreds of primarily African migrants, connecting them with lawyers and translators to facilitate a proper asylum application in the hopes that they are allowed to stay and continue their journey north. He lives with them, gives them jobs on his farm and builds meaningful relationships with them. He is one of the few who treats them as human beings, instead of economic liabilities. Herrou himself has been arrested numerous times for aiding migrants in France and his trials have made national headlines, a conscious decision he made in the hopes of generating support and awareness of these humanitarian issues. Just as the migrants resist power through physical movement, Herrou resists power through the manipulation of legality and deliberate mediatization of the issue.

Herrou, along with many others in this southern region, began aiding migrants because it was the right thing to do. The laws prohibiting such activity (meant to target profiting smugglers) are not seen as deterrents to activists, who feel as though they cannot turn a blind eye to the needs of asylum seekers like the French government has. Instead, they have recast the focus from a question of immigration to a question of human rights; helping people in physical need. Herrou often seeks out migrants traveling along the road at night and brings them to his home; failure to do so could result in their starvation, deportation back to Italy or death in the cold.

Though Herrou doesn’t profit from helping these travelers, he was arrested for doing so in 2016, an event that sparked national headlines and increased public discussion and support for humanitarian acts of solidarity. Though national law prohibits the very foundation of these activist organizations, they find ways to reassert their power and resist authority. In challenging authority and law, they are also actively working to change that law in the process. Herrou’s arrest, along with the arrest of French professor Pierre-Alain Mannoni for the same charges, created a public dialogue surrounding this issue. Herrou himself realized that the way to bring about foundational change was to generate pressure on the law by exposing this to the press, creating media coverage and forcing those who control the law to listen. He has done just this-- in his most recent appeal in May 2020, France’s Appeals Court in Lyon dropped all charges on the basis that his actions were “crimes of solidarity” and therefore could not be criminalized. This decision is a landmark for France, not only did it force the courts to more clearly evaluate and define their previously ambiguous rules on helping migrants in France but it definitively established the French principle of Fraternité into law. Based on a simple dictionary definition, Fraternity is defined as the “Link between persons considered to be members of the human family-- solidarity” (Lien existant entre personnes considérées comme membres de la famille humaine--solidarité). This legal action has led to larger humanitarian advocacy groups like Amnesty International to call out vague legislation criminalizing those working to protect human rights. A report by Amnesty International highlights how the reinstatement of Schengen’s internal border checks, meant to target terrorist threats, is misused to prevent migrants from entering France, making it virtually impossible for them to reach the asylum application point that is now 20km past the border area.

As a space of contestation, law is ever changing. The “illegal” movement of the migrants is one of the greatest acts of protest that can be seen. It is this movement that creates momentum for this relatively powerless category of people to change the narrative and force their voice into national politics to make their needs heard. Herrou’s contribution to this act of protest is unique, using social media and journalism to manipulate change in the law. Herrou started reaching people through Twitter, then as his arrests and trials gained media attention national and international interest in the issue grew. He even participated in a documentary titled “La Vallée'' directed by Nuno Escudeiro, that illustrated not only the measures he and other community activists take to make sure the migrants feel welcomed, safe and have properly facilitated asylum requests but also the individual experiences of migrants who pass through Breil-sur-Roya.

I hope this piece sheds a new light on migrant movement and activism and may offer possible ways that we can enact change here in the U.S.

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