PARIS — It wasn't yet 8 a.m. when police knocked on Monique Pouille's door, searched her home and took her away — all because she recharged cell phones for illegal migrants.
The 59-year-old volunteer with several groups in the Calais region of northern France was put behind bars and interrogated for three hours before being freed.
The French government forbids aiding illegal migrants and sets quotas for arrests of those who do as it tries to control growing clandestine immigration. This year's target: 5,000 arrests.
Authorities contend the measure is aimed at those who profit financially from those in France illegally. However, the recent episode exemplifies what humanitarian associations and others contend is a concerted effort to harass volunteers who provide a lifeline, or a simple kindness, to illegal aliens in a new dimension of the crackdown on illegal immigration.
"I think the idea is to send out a strong message, 'Watch out, danger,' and that is scandalous," said Pouille's lawyer, Bruno Dubout, noting other cases in which volunteer workers have been questioned by police, or charged.
Humanitarian associations plan demonstrations in front of court houses in major cities around France on April 8 to protest what they say is the "crime of solidarity."
The associations cite an article in the code governing foreigners' right to remain in France that forbids anyone from facilitating or trying to facilitate "the entry, movement or irregular (illegal) stay of a foreigner in France." Doing so is punishable by up to five years in prison and a 30,000-euro fine. But few, if any, activists like Pouille are charged with a crime and spend significant time in prison.
Quota for arrests
An addendum on immigration in the 2009 Finance Law sets a quota for arrests of those who "assist" illegal aliens: 5,000 in 2009, 5,500 in 2011.
The Immigration Ministry, created when President Nicolas Sarkozy took office in 2007, proudly makes public its yearly expulsion quota — the goal of 26,000 expulsions in 2008 went far beyond to 29,796 — but, until now, there had been no talk of quotas for those who help illegals.
Immigration Minister Eric Besson says the measure is "indispensable" for combating smugglers who profit from migrants — a priority of the center-right government priority.
"Is patriotism something you like only when it is brandished by Barack Obama?" Besson asked opposition lawmakers last week in the lower house as Socialists prepared a measure to modify the wording of the article on assistance. It is to be debated April 30.
"In France today there is a real climate of intimidation against those who help" illegal aliens, Catherine Coutelle, a Socialist lawmaker behind the bid to modify the law, said by telephone.
She said the move to change the law was partly inspired by a movie out this month in France, "Welcome," the story of a Calais swimming instructor who teaches an illegal alien how to swim so he can cross the Channel to Britain.
Up to 1,800 migrants hoping to sneak into Britain in trucks can be found at any one time in the Calais region, gathered in makeshift camps since the leveling of a Red Cross shelter in Sangatte in 2002. Volunteers like Monique Pouille try to ease their suffering.
"We feel that volunteers are being surveyed, tracked ... for insignificant reasons" to discourage working with illegal aliens, said the Rev. Jean-Pierre Boutoille, a Catholic priest who has long helped migrants in Calais.
Police finally paid a visit to her house Feb. 25. She told the association she works with, Terre d'errance (Land of Roaming), that "they knew a lot about me and the association." No charges were filed. She could not be reached for an interview.
Jean-Claude Lenoir, a middle school teacher in Calais and vice president of the association Salam, was arrested in November as police, with dogs and a helicopter, rounded up migrants. He appeared in court Feb. 25 in nearby Boulogne-sur-Mer for alleged verbal abuse of police — which he denies — but the proceedings were postponed until June.
Some 10 days ago, a young woman driving two migrants to a hospital, wearing a vest identifying her as a Salam volunteer, was detained for four hours, Lenoir said, adding "there is pressure, harassment."
At the southern end of France, in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, police descended on an Emmaus community Feb. 17, in search of illegal aliens, a day after the arrest of one man without papers who had been given lodging there. An official from the organization was held six hours for questioning, Emmaus said. No charges were filed.
Teddy Roudaut, communications officer for Emmaus France, said there is no legal definition for someone who assists those without papers, so the law can be applied "to someone who serves soup or ... gives lodging to someone."
He insisted that Emmaus, an international organization, does not defend smugglers "but the law is so fuzzy it can apply to us."
There is no global count of the number of volunteers around France who have been detained by police, but said Roudaut of Emmaus, "We're obviously afraid that we're becoming a reservoir for (the Immigration Ministry's) quota."
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