French Movie Alerts Public To Immigrants' Plight

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In France, illegal migrants often congregate in the port city of Calais hoping to hitch a covert ride across the Channel. A new French film about their situation has put the government on the defensive and provoked a public outcry over a law that makes it a crime to help them.


In France, a dozen migrants came close to meeting a horrific end. A truck driver was about to fill a tank with sulfuric acid when he discovered the people hiding inside. It happened earlier this month in the port city of Calais. Illegal immigrants congregate there in hopes of hitching a covert ride across the channel. Now a French film calls attention to a law that makes it a crime to help these immigrants. Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(Soundbite of music)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: "Welcome" tells the story of how a French swimming instructor in the town of Calais helps a young Iraqi Kurd train to swim across the English Channel to Britain. Middle aged and disappointed with his own life, Simon, the Frenchman, admires the courage of 17-year-old Bilal, who has walked from Kurdistan to France.

(Soundbite of movie, "Welcome")

Mr. FIRAT AYVERDI: (As Bilal) Excuse me. How much for lessons?

Mr. VINCENT LINDON: (As Simon) You want to learn to swim?

Mr. AYVERDI: (As Bilal) Yes.

Mr. LINDON: (As Simon) Cool. Where are you from?

Mr. AYVERDI: (As Bilal) (Unintelligible) Kurdistan.

BEARDSLEY: The film is set against the backdrop of a wretched camp of illegal migrants living on the outskirts of Calais. In 2002, President Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, shut down an official refugee camp there.

Since then, ram-shackle tents and lean-tos have reappeared in a forest outside Calais known as the Jungle. Some 700 migrants from places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur live there waiting to sneak aboard ferries to Britain.

The director of "Welcome," Philippe Lioret, says he based his fictitious story on the reality of what's happening in his country.

Mr. PHILIPPE LIORET (Director, "Welcome"): (Through Translator) I discovered such a shocking world. In France today, we let people live worse than wild beasts. The police are violent with them. We hunt them down. And these people aren't criminals. They're simply victims trying to get to England.

BEARDSLEY: The migrants want to cross the English Channel to join family members in Britain who settled there when the immigration environment was more lenient a few years ago. In one harrowing scene, Bilal and a few others sneak aboard a truck being loaded onto a channel ferry. They cower inside as police dogs swarm the wharf. The migrants wear plastic bags on their heads to evade the carbon dioxide detectors.

But what has shocked France the most is the film's depiction of the atmosphere of police intimidation and fear that reigns in the city of Calais.

(Soundbite of movie, "Welcome")

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: In one scene, snooping neighbors threaten to denounce Simon to the police when he brings Bilal home, and officers raid his apartment one morning at dawn seeking hidden migrants. Filmmaker Lioret says the hostile climate is encouraged by a law threatening citizens who help clandestine immigrants with a five-year jail term and a $40,000 fine. He compared volunteers assisting the Calais refugees with those who hid Jews from the police during World War II.

Mr. LIORET: (Through Translator) The repressive mechanisms are the same as in 1943. They knock on the door at 7 a.m. to take someone away. The end result is deportation. And sending these refugees back to their countries often means death.

BEARDSLEY: Outraged government ministers said Lioret's comparison was completely absurd. They say the law is necessary to fight the human traffickers preying on the migrants, and that it does not target well-meaning citizens. But human rights organizations claim the law has been used against some people acting out of charity.

Recently, thousands rallied against the law in demonstrations around the country.

Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: At the Place Saint-Michel in Paris, people stepped up to the microphone one by one to say they would help illegal migrants and gladly face prosecution in the name of solidarity.

Sarkozy's immigration minister, Eric Besson, recently visited Calais to announce that new humanitarian services would be provided for the migrants. But, he said, the Jungle and its trafficking networks would be shut down by the end of the year.

Mr. ERIC BESSON (Immigration Minister, France): (Through Translator) This is Calais. This is France, not Kabul. It's the law of this land that applies. We will treat illegal migrants with dignity, but in this zone, it is French law that will prevail.

BEARDSLEY: Filmmaker Lioret says his film is not a documentary and he's no politician, but he says he's pleased that "Welcome" has gone beyond the movie review pages to provoke a real debate about immigration in France.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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