• Cédric Herrou has made his property, near the France-Italy border a makeshift refugee centre. (SBS Dateline)
This week we meet the French farmer rebelling against authorities to help refugees find a better life in Europe. Is he a good Samaritan helping those in desperate need, or a dangerous people smuggler?
Airdate: 
Tuesday, July 25, 2017 - 21:30
Channel: 
SBS

Olive farmer by day, people smuggler by night.

In a small French village nestled in the mountains near the southern border with Italy, Cédric Herrou is operating a makeshift refugee centre from his rural property.

In contravention of French laws banning citizens from assisting illegal arrivals, Herrou has found himself the focus of a national debate; are his actions those of a benevolent outlaw helping people in need, or those of a criminal?

Over the past several years he has helped hundreds of mostly young refugees cross the border from Italy to France. Many of the young people he takes in have journeyed across the Mediterranean from Africa, fleeing war, poverty, persecution and dictatorial regimes, looking for a new, safer life in Europe. He feeds and takes care of them at his property – he says he once had 60 people staying there – and helps them seek refuge elsewhere in France, or other countries.

But his work has found him in the government’s crosshairs.

Herrou says authorities began monitoring him after he was seen across the border in the Italian town of Ventimiglia, trying to help a group of Eritrean refugees – “the French and Italian police saw me and followed me home,” he says.

“The public prosecutor described my actions as humanitarian and important.”

Since then, he’s been arrested and charged with operating an asylum camp, and aiding the illegal entry and stay of migrants.

Jean-Claude Guibal is the mayor of Menton, a French town near the border, and one of his critics. He says people like Herrou offer asylum seekers an unrealistic sense of hope – encouraging more to make what is a dangerous journey from Africa that will likely seen them detained. “We can’t let them [refugees] expect to cross the border without any sanctions,” he says.

In Herrou’s eyes, this punitive approach to policing refugee arrivals is heartless.

Italy, which has a large coastline in the Mediterranean Sea north of Libya and Tunisia, is a popular migrant route for refugees wanting to settle in Europe. The country had around 181,000 asylum seekers arrive in 2016 – it also had more than 150,000 asylum seekers arrive in 2014 and 2015.

Already in 2017 more than 86,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Italy.

For Herrou, each of these numbers represents a complex human life – he believes too many people just see them as statistics. The refugees staying with Herrou all have long, complex stories that led to them seeking refuge in another country. One Eritrean man, Goitom, describes a life with little education opportunities, where many children were forced into becoming soldiers. He says his journey across the Mediterranean to Europe was on a crammed boat of 417 people – he has friends who died at sea.

“They’re people with emotions, desires and hopes for the future,” Herrou says. “They’re not objects. The prosecutor can’t see that. To him I’m a smuggler.”

Many of the asylum seekers are seeking better, safer life.

Will the French government imprison someone for helping them make their dreams a reality?

Herrou says he has no plans of stopping.

“I have people staying in my home. I’ll keep helping them,” he says. “It’s not up to me to judge who’s black or white, legal or illegal. That’s not my job.

“I’m a farmer. My job is to feed people.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.

More

Refugee or migrant? Sometimes the line is blurred
In many cases people crossing borders can be at once both refugees and migrants, but those terms carry vastly different protections.
Debunking myths about why people migrate across the Mediterranean
The assumption that refugees pick Europe as a 'destination' is a myth, new research shows.
Organisations under attack for saving too many lives in the Mediterranean
Politicians and media in Europe have criticised NGOs for saving the lives of too many refugees in the Mediterranean, hence undermining efforts to stem the flow of migration from Africa.
Fleeing for freedom, Eritrean refugees are being abandoned by Europe
As Eritreans pour out of their country, many fleeing military conscription and hoping for freedom, the EU is trying to stop them from seeking asylum in Europe.
French farmer in the dock for aiding migrants
A French farmer who faces up to five years in prison for helping African migrants slip into the country and find shelter told his trial Wednesday he merely wanted to relieve their suffering.
What is the difference between asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants?
Often the terms ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are used interchangeably - but they have specific meaning and attached legal definitions.

Credits

Director / Producer / Camera / Edit: Spencer Wolff

Producer / Camera / Sound / Edit: Ben Lenzner

Narrator: Darren Mara

Transcript

CEDRIC HERROU, OLIVE FARMER:   Hello. Where are you? What? No, I don’t understand. Yes. I am in the same place as before. I see you with the police. 

This is Cedric Herrou, an olive farmer by day and a people smuggler by night. 

CEDRIC HERROU:  I’m going to pick up some children, then we will go home. 

Cedric has helped hundreds cross the border from Italy to France, illegally. Many are unaccompanied minors. Tonight he is picking up six Eritrean teenagers. He’s helped the teenagers before but they were caught by police, this time they hope will be different

CEDRIC HERROU: Tomorrow we make macaroni and pasta. You have the document from police to go to Italy? 

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  These are the kids we found last Wednesday then we were caught by the police. 9.45p.m. is the right time. The date’s right. Here’s his name, born in 2002, so he is a minor.  Then it says “arrived by train.” They are fake documents made by the police so that they can deport, “legally”, with fake documents unaccompanied minors to Italy. 

French law protects unaccompanied minors so this time, Cedric is careful to check there are no mistakes. 

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  I’ve just picked up the kids we were with before, they hikes back up. It clearly states…”Arrived by train at 9.45 pm at Breil-sur-Roya train station.” 

BOY (Translation):  Is this what they call pizza? 

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  We’ve never had so many trains stop at Breil, some as late as 9.45pm! Amazing.  
Just eat. Don’t look at me. Just eat. Just eat.
If you have time we need to write up affidavits… state that you were with me and I’ll do the same.  

Around 181,000 refugees arrived in Italy last year on their way to other parts of Europe.

BOY (Translation):  I want to go to England, it should be England.

BOY 2 (Translation):  We have all been dreaming about it but it seems impossible.

BOY (Translation):  How can you dream of a place you have never been?

BOY 2 (Translation):  By dreaming, I mean wishing, that’s what dreaming means.

BOY (Translation):  Of course you can say you want to go there.

BOY 2 (Translation):   I dream about it means I wish to go there.

BOY (Translation):  Don’t say that. I was wishing for Italy.

BOY 2 (Translation):  Why didn’t you stay there?

BOY (Translation):  It didn’t work out.

Cedric's farm has become a haven for refugees daring to sneak across the Italian - French border. It's made him a hero to some, a criminal to others. He's been arrested three times.

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  I was first arrested in Ventimiglia after giving a lift to children, women and men who were from Eritrea. I wanted to take them to my home to help them but the French and Italian police saw me and followed me home, and they arrested me.

The public prosecutor described my actions as humanitarian, and important. So I continued doing it with better resources. An organisation called Roya Citoyenne began to help. At one point I had about 60 people at my place.  We were worried we wouldn’t cope, so we used a site belonging to the French Railways.

I was arrested there, I’m charged with opening private property to create a residence, a squat, basically. The second charge is aiding the illegal entry or stay of migrants.

Cedric is now being charged with operating a makeshift refugee camp.

NEWSREADER (Translation):  Big-hearted hero to some, reckless to others…

Cedric's trial has captured the attention of the nation as anti-immigration sentiment rises.

NEWSREADER (Translation):  A symbol of aid to migrants in France… He faces five years’ prison and a 30,000 euro fine.

He emerges from court and will return in a month's time for the verdict.

REPORTER (Translation):   Will you continue?

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  If the problem continues, of course I will continue.  I have people staying at my home and I will keep helping them. It’s not up to me to judge who is black or white, legal or illegal. That’s not my job. I am a farmer. My job is to feed people.

He may go to jail for up to five years or face a hefty fine. An unexpected humanitarian movement has sprung from the surrounding villages. Ten others also face charges.

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  It’s no longer France here. The Eritreans came here fleeing dictatorship, the Sudanese came here fleeing war, but the French are just taking over the job. The three minors were in this caravan…probably on the computer. The police arrived, went in and dragged them out. For them, migrants are this…This is in the way, I remove it... There, that’s it. Like a cardboard box. 

But these are people with desires, with pasts, with families waiting for them, people who are in love, parents who love their kids, kids who love their parents.  Some kids cry for parents who are still in Italy or dead. They’re people with emotions, desires and hopes for the future. They’re not boxes! And that’s the problem. I’m treated like people who smuggled objects back in the days when we still had borders. But they’re not objects. The prosecutor can’t see that, to him I am a smuggler.

The refugees who find shelter on Cedric's farm, it's a temporary safe haven on a harrowing journey.

GOITOM (Translation):  My name is Goitom and I am from Eritrea.  In Eritrea, there is always war. After grade eight, you cannot finish your education. You have to become a soldier. No university. No college. At seven years old, I go to Sudan with my mother, my father dead in the war of independence in Eritrea. In Sudan, after 11 years…We also had very big problem. The police of Sudan catch the Ethiopian guys and return us to country. After that, again in the jail… No food. Some people is dead in the jail. No medicine. Some children also dead in the jail.

417 people in the ship. The ship is very small. The motor for the ship is stopping work, on the sea.  Everybody says, ‘Cry! Cry! To pray to God!’ All the people says, ‘This time we’re dead.’ But by the work of God…The big ship later on is coming and after that we all say to God, Thank you God! Thanks God! Thanks God!
Before 3 days, 1400 persons dead in the sea. I have my friends in the sea. Before 4 days, this. From Ventimiglia is coming by foot. Four times catching by police. Return us. Return us. The fifth time, coming by road of the train. Almost ten hours… Very hungry. Cédric’s friend is getting in the road of the train. We say, ‘Oh! Oh!’ He says, ‘Coming! Coming!’ to the guys.

Not everyone in the region agrees with Cedric's mission. The Mayor of Menton believes helping migrants only encourages more to embark on the dangerous journey to Europe.

JEAN-CLAUDE GUIBAL, MAYOR OF MENTON (Translation):  My apologies for using economic terms… There is a stock of one million potential migrants in Libya, brought in by smugglers. It costs 4000 to 5000 euros to come from an African country to Libya, then they cross the Mediterranean. They arrive at Lampedusa, a small Italian island…and then go up the boot of Italy, to end up for the most part, here on the French border in Menton.

To protect the border, the French government has deployed significant police numbers, the border police, the national police and also the military. As of today in Italy, there are half a million migrants. They can’t take the trains, because the risk of being caught is too high. They can’t use the motorways, which are also strictly controlled. So they go up the Roya Valley and attempt, at certain points, to cross the border.

We can’t let them expect to cross the border, without any sanctions.  It’s not doing them any favours. I’m not being hypocritical. I imagine it could be seen as hypocritical but I don’t think it is. I don’t believe that we should allow these men to hope.

Since 2015, Europe's been overwhelmed by the refugee crisis. With migrant camps overflowing and borders closed, many try to find alternative routes, routes that traverse mountains and can be life-threatening. Without the help of locals, some wouldn't survive.

NATHALIE, ACTOR (Translation):  We live in Breil-sur-Roya, I was born here. We work in theatre so we often come home late at night. Several times we have come across refugees walking along the main road. We saw them walking along our local road and in the mountains in the middle of storms… in the mountains you never see people left struggling on their own by the roadside. It’s simple., this is Italy over there, here we are in France. That’s Italy and that’s Italy. So a refugee travelling through here is trapped.

Like Cedric, the daily sights convinced neighbours, Nathalie and Raphael, to get involved.

NATHALIE (Translation): The first time we took someone in, I was alone with my son. There was a big storm around 2 pm, there were three of them walking along the road. They were really young. In any case, they had to be helped because they were sopping wet and extremely tired. They were Sudanese, from Darfur. They had been walking all night from Ventimiglia on the train tracks. They were heading towards Ventimiglia, they”d got lost. I asked where they were going, they said, ‘Paris.’  I said, ‘No. you’re going to Ventimiglia.’ They were crushed. They said, ‘That can’t be, we were there.’

To help those in need, they defy authorities.

NATHALIE (Translation): It’s completely changed our lives. There was before, and there was after.

RAPHAEL (Translation):  Yeah, that’s it.

NATHALIE (Translation):  We’re sick of doing the work for the government, the work of people whose job it is to take care of people in trouble.

RAPHAEL (Translation):  These people left 2 years ago and made it across Libya… If they are arrested 15 times, they’ll try again 15 times.

NATHALIE (Translation):  People keep getting arrested, new people keep coming. If we get as many next spring as we did last year, what do we do?

For months, the residents of the Roya Valley have lodged complaints with child services. They want the authorities to help young refugees instead of turning them back to Italy where many are left living on the streets. Just days before Cedric's next court appearance, the police hunt him out at the village market.

POLICE (Translation):  He’s with me now. Please come here.

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  Hi, how’s it going?

POLICE (Translation):  How many have arrived?

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  When?

POLICE (Translation):  They are coming now.

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  Who?

POLICE (Translation):  The buses.

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  What buses?

POLICE (Translation):  For the unaccompanied minors.

The police want Cedric to round up the unaccompanied minors sheltered by local residents. They're to be moved to safer state housing in Nice.

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  How many are they taking?

POLICE (Translation):  33.

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  the problem is, lots have left.

POLICE (Translation):  Oh, well…

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  Child Services has come to pick them up. With two or three buses. Right now.

WOMAN (Translation):   What do I do?

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  We need to call everyone with minors. See you. What time are they leaving?

POLICE (Translation):  They left this morning.

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  It sucks.  Yes.   As soon as possible, did you call the others? Cool. Let’s just change their names, say this one is that one. Who cares?  At least they are moving on. Many have left and many have arrived.

REPORTER (Translation):  Okay, how many?

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation): About 15.

REPORTER (Translation):   Are they all here?

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  I don’t think so.  Saorge is on the way.

POLICE (Translation):  Fine, are they all listed?

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  Not all of them.

WOMAN (Translation):   And your birthday…

BOY (Translation):  Here?

POLICE (Translation):  Given name, E-F-Y-E-M. Male… Everything is correct.

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  Call me, okay? And if you want to come back, come back.

It's a good outcome for the young Eritreans as they continue to move forward on their long journeys. It's Cedric's big day - he's back in court for the verdict that could get him five years in jail.

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  How’s it going?

REPORTER (Translation):  Good and you?

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  I’m fine, the weather’s nice.

REPORTER (Translation):  What’s your frame of mind?

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  The classic question… well, we will keep going. We will keep moving forward and we will adapt to the response of the courts and the justice system. The question is, can we trust the justice system? We’ll see.

REPORTER (Translation):  Will you appeal?

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  Why appeal if I am acquitted? The prosecutor would appeal, I guess, unless he has had enough.

WOMAN (Translation):  Time to go Cedric.

GUARD (Translation):  Thank you sir. Your turn sir.

MAN (Translation):  How are you?

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):  I’m fine.

Cedric's supporters eagerly await the verdict hoping for leniency. No one knows which way the judge will swing.

WOMAN (Translation):  It’s not a crime to help a minor. I am an unaccompanied minor. Thanks to Cedric and to Roya Citoyenne, I have a mum, a French mother, who is white and I go to school, I continue my education thanks to what Cedric does for unaccompanied minors, him and Roya Citoyenne. It’s not a crime to help an unaccompanied minor. For one second, put yourself or your children in the shoes of an unaccompanied minor…for one second, outside in the streets, without food, without anything, without…without a blanket in the snow.

CROWD (Translation):  Solidarity with the refugees…

Cedric is found guilty of illegally helping migrants, but the judge is compassionate handing down a light sentence, a suspended fine of 3,000 euros.

CEDRIC HERROU (Translation):   There are hundreds of us, thousands of us…most importantly, the court has confirmed the dehumanising conditions people suffer on French soil. Politics should not manipulate the people by stigmatising a religion, a race, a skin colour or a country of origin. My fellow citizens, rise up and let us make politics ours, a politics that is hands-on, inclusive and for the people.

What bothers me the most is when I walk around Nice, people recognise me and say “Well done, you are a hero!” It is completely exaggerated. There is nothing hard about what I do, from the start I have felt that this is my cause, my life’s cause. It is why I am on this planet.

director/producer/camera/edit
spencer wolff 

producer/camera/sound/edit
ben lenzner 

editors
micah mcgown
simon phegan
david potts 

translations
odile blandeau 

titles music
vicki hansen

25th July 2017