At Risk Of Arrest, Villagers Aid Migrants Crossing French-Italian Border : Parallels Thousands of migrants are trapped on the border between France and Italy. New French regulations are supposed to keep the migrants out, but residents are trying to help them enter the country.
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At Risk Of Arrest, Villagers Aid Migrants Crossing French-Italian Border

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At Risk Of Arrest, Villagers Aid Migrants Crossing French-Italian Border

At Risk Of Arrest, Villagers Aid Migrants Crossing French-Italian Border

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Migrants from the Middle East and Africa are still arriving in Europe. And the EU still lacks a cohesive plan to deal with them. It's a problem that is especially apparent along internal borders, like the one between France and Italy. Some local people are stepping in to help, but in doing so, they're risking arrest. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has the story.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: One day last October, geography teacher Pierre-Alain Mannoni was driving back to his home in Nice from a village in the Mediterranean Alps. He was spotted by police at a tollbooth and was arrested, handcuffed and fingerprinted. He spent 36 hours in jail - his crime?

PIERRE-ALAIN MANNONI: I was charged with helping foreigners to circulate in France.

BEARDSLEY: Illegal foreigners, that is. Mannoni had been trying to drive three Eritrean girls to the hospital in his car.

MANNONI: They were hurt. They had wounds, and they were cold and frightened. They had been working 12 hours, and they required some medical attention.

BEARDSLEY: Last month, a judge cleared Mannoni, ruling that what he did was in line with French law and the European Convention on Human Rights, but the Nice prosecutor has appealed that decision. According to French law, if you help an illegal foreigner out of humanitarian reasons and not for payment, you can't be charged under laws meant to prosecute traffickers. But Mannoni says these days, the situation is unclear and people continue to be arrested.

NADIA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In the tiny streets of Saorge, one of the villages perched high in the rugged mountains not far from the Italian border, Nadia talks to a neighbor. She doesn't want to use her last name because she fears she could lose her job in the regional tourism office. She says villagers are coming together to do what they can for the migrants coming over the border from Italy, but the numbers are overwhelming.

NADIA: It's really more and more difficult to help refugees to pass the border. We don't want to go to jail, or I don't know. Anyway, we welcome them, give food, give clothes, but the main problem is we cannot welcome all refugees and keep them in our house.

BEARDSLEY: Nadia says police are everywhere. And when they find migrants, they immediately send them back to Italy, where towns near the border are overwhelmed. EU laws stipulates that young refugees traveling alone must be given special care, but she says that's not happening here.


BEARDSLEY: It's not the first time the people in these picturesque mountain villages have come together in solidarity. During World War II, many hid Jews and resistance fighters. There's a plaque in one village square in honor of those deported to Nazi death camps.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: A delicious smell floats out of one house, where a group of neighbors have been cooking all day. They're preparing meals to take to Ventimiglia, the last town in Italy before the border. Migrants camp there waiting for their chance to pass into France and beyond, but a city ordinance in Ventimiglia has made it illegal to give them food. One of the cooks, Bernard Duchatelle, says in these circumstances, the only option is civil disobedience.

BERNARD DUCHATELLE: You see young people, sometimes teenagers, they're alone, totally helpless, alone, no money. It's cold. And I really believe that as a citizen, if you believe your government does not show morality, then you have to go against your government.

ELIZABETTA PANELLI: Let's go inside, it's much warmer. So I'll introduce you to the guys.

BEARDSLEY: Elizabetta Panelli and her husband Simon currently have houseguests, two boys, 16 and 17, who fled the dictatorship in Eritrea. They wandered into the village just before Christmas. Others in their group were immediately arrested and sent back over the border to Italy.

PANELLI: What is this? What's happening. Why am I hiding people? Why do I have to hide people in my house? Why do I have to worry that the police will come here? You know, I ask them to lock themselves in, not to answer the door.

BEARDSLEY: Panelli says she and her husband plan to keep the boys in their home until they can legally drive them to Nice and enroll them in a proper center for minors. A place, she says, where the boys can get the help and care European law says they deserve. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Saorge, France.


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