Thursday, 11 June 2009

Welcome, in Ariège ...

A few weeks ago, we went to see Welcome, Philippe Lioret's film about clandestine immigrants in Calais and in particular about a 17 year old Kurdish refugee, Bilal, who is determined to swim across the Channel to get to England, where he is hopes to rejoin his girlfriend (and play for Manchester United!). The film tells the story of how he is befriended by a swimming teacher, learns to swim, and eventually makes his attempt on the Channel. Meanwhile, his friend-teacher is arrested and charged with "offering assistance to a foreigner in an irregular situation" - a section of the penal code usually reserved only for 'people traffickers'. It was a truly excellent film, if upsetting, and not a little controversial. If it hits a cinema near you, see it. 

Little did we think that a not dissimilar, real life, situation would shortly unfold here, in our local town.

At the beginning of the year, a young Afghan guy, Obaï, joined the French language workshop that John attends at the Resto du Coeur in Saint Girons. Little was known about his background, and a few weeks ago he moved on, apparently to Pamiers, a larger town on the plain in the north east of the department. We thought no more of him. Until a couple of days ago, when a headline in our regional paper, La Dépêche du Midi, caught my attention: a Saint Girons woman is being charged with "offering assistance to a foreigner in an irregular situation". The foreigner is Obaï. 

The story goes like this. Claudine Louis had been for some time concerned with the plight of Afghan clandestine immigrants to France; last winter she heard that a family was living rough in a park in Paris amongst 50 other clandestines, and went to investigate with a view to taking some action on their behalf. The family had actually been accommodated in a hotel by the authorities, but while there she came across Obaï: 16 years old, cold, and ill. She brought him back to Saint Girons to stay with her, made sure he got medical treatment, began to teach him French and set out to get hold of his identity papers so that he could get the formal child protection that all minors in France are entitled to: support, accommodation within a children's home or foster family, and education. Having successfully got his identity documents, she then set off on an interminable round of just about every official body in the department, encountering procrastination and being passed from pillar to post over a period of nearly four months. Finally, and in desperation to alert the departmental authorities to the presence of her young friend, she took him to the Préfecture in Foix and deposited him there.

By the end of the day, Obaï had been placed in a foster home in Pamiers, and Claudine had been charged. She is due to appear in court on 21 July; if she is found guilty she risks 5 years imprisonment, and/or a fine of up to 30,000 euros. 

There is more than a certain irony in the fact that Claudine is being charged under a section of the code usually reserved for those who are hiding an illegal immigrant when she has spent four months trying, unsuccessfully through no fault of her own, to do just the opposite. Our department does in fact have a generally sympathetic approach to refugees - perhaps not surprising given that a large number of its residents were originally refugees from Spain in the Franco years - and the Préfecture has stressed that no blame or fallout will find its way to Obaï himself. Quite why they have chosen to bring this prosecution - the fourth such case in France - is beyond not only me but also the many other people who are coming together in support of Claudine. 

If, like me, you are shocked and upset by what's going on here, please think about writing to the prosecutor (Procureur) in Foix. There's a sample letter here, where you can also read an account of events in Claudine's own words. Whether you live in the department - or even in France - or not, we can make a difference. 

6 comments:

Mike said...

A sad turn of events. Thanks for posting. I will mail a copy of the letter.

Kalba Meadows said...

Thanks for doing that, Mike. It is sad, and I'm really surprised to hear of it happening here. There's a lot of support for Claudine though, and it's beginning to look like the charges might go nowhere. The view of the Conseil Général (the equivalent of a county council) is that they have no alternative to bring charges not because she 'harboured a clandestine' but because she went and brought him from outside the department!

Phidelm said...

Have wondered about this one, myself. Glad to find there's a means of adding one's voice. Am always in favour of grassroots/local action where possible.

Kalba Meadows said...

Quite. It may not be the one thing that makes the difference, but at least you don't feel so powerless. But there again, it just might ...
K

Saborosa said...

Can I add my thanks for drawing attention to this. I think the park in Paris you mention is the one near my flat. I feel ashamed for having done nothing more than feel sorry for the groups of young guys camped out there. (Though I did entertain them the other day by jogging through the park - gave a few of them a laugh for a second.) I'd be happy to send a letter, happy to do this little deed to help someone who's actually done something real to help.

Kalba Meadows said...

Saborosa: it's the Parc Villemin, if that means anything to you. I don't know whether you've caught up with the outcome of Claudine's court appearance, but if not, I blogged about it on 23 July. Thanks for visiting, and for caring.