A farmer in southern France who smuggled migrants across the country’s border with Italy is waiting to discover his sentence after being prosecuted this week for his actions.
Hailed a hero by many in Europe and denounced by others, 37-year-old Cédric Herrou estimates that so far he has helped more than 400 migrants stuck in Italy pass into France.
Herrou drove the migrants across the border in his van – the same van he uses to deliver eggs in his tiny Alpine village – deftly avoided police checkpoints using mountain lanes, and later provided shelter at his hilltop farm.
VICE News followed Herrou in the autumn, when he opened a temporary refuge housing 53 migrants in a derelict government building high in the Alps. With 15 people already at his home, he’d run out of space. Herrou was arrested just days later and on Wednesday went on trial in Nice for smuggling migrants.
The case typifies the region’s struggle to resolve the migrant crisis and the public disagreement over how to handle it; drawing hundreds of demonstrators sympathetic to his cause to the court steps.
Herrou is the most prominent member in a migrant-helping collective formed in the valley village of Breil-sur-Roya. Their activities are well-documented by the local press and – until the arrest – they were tolerated by authorities.
“It is dangerous,” he told us, shortly before he was detained. “I expect many people would want my arrest. But we are well organized… and the law is completely absurd, and stupid.”
More than 170,000 mostly African refugees and migrants reached Italy in 2016, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many paid traffickers to pack them into trucks for the long drive across Libya and the Sahara. Almost all clambered aboard the now emblematic rusting vessels which risk disaster to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. But very few intended to remain there.
While European Union law requires refugees to register for asylum in the first EU country they enter, most travellers hope to reach northern Europe – either due to family ties or because of what many believe are better prospects of both asylum and work.
A police crackdown at crossings has created a build-up of migrants in border towns like Italy’s Ventimiglia; a small seaside Riviera city which is a 20-minute drive down spiraling mountain roads from Herrou’s farm in France.
The network of villagers and friends called Herrou to tip him off if they spot children crossing. Some found his house by word of mouth, and he arranged to meet others in person.
“I choose the people who have problems crossing – families, women, children. Choosing them is the most difficult part. There are about 200 families and children in Ventimiglia, every time I go there.”
Up to 600 men are sheltered in Ventimiglia’s sprawling, heavily-policed Red Cross camp in an abandoned industrial estate beside the highway. A further 200 women and children stay at a separate, less intimidating camp in a town church.
Many travellers loiter at the city’s railway station, where police habitually remove them as they attempt to board trains. Others can be seen walking across the tracks and mountain trails at night to evade authorities.
“Most people in Europe say they are sad about the migrants but don’t do anything. I respect their choice, I’m not going to criticize,” Herrou said. “We have two choices: we either lock our doors and turn a deaf ear, or we leave our doors open and listen, which is what’s happening.”
Herrou’s farmhouse is little more than a shack at the top of a steep and winding mountain path; migrants stay in wooden sheds and caravans on his land, gathering to eat around his patio table. For the migrants, this is a confusing leg of a miserable journey but it is far from the worst part. Some appeared amused by Herrou – awkward, bearded and bohemian.
One 17-year-old girl in Herrou’s temporary custody had travelled more than 2,500 miles from Eritrea – alone – before getting into his van. She was fleeing oppression, but also pursuing a dream of becoming a doctor.
“I miss my family. It’s very difficult to live without them,” she said. “Someone told me we’ll be returned to Italy, but I don’t want to return to Italy. I want to go first to Paris and eventually to England or Germany.”
The travellers typically spend three or four days with Herrou before he tries to get them on trains to continue their journey deeper into France.
Sheltering the migrants at his own home is not illegal. But the larger refuge was opened without permission on private property – a response to what he called “an emergency” of 58 migrants at his doorstep.
“I’m not a hero. Here are people who need help and I simply help them. Nothing more,” Herrou said, referring to the many people who support the network’s actions.
“What’s more, France has values. We respect rights. Those who don’t agree should leave as France does not mean closed doors.”
Authorities disagreed. The refuge was shut down a day after VICE News visited. It marked not the end of the road for its residents, but another obstacle in an implausible slog.
Herrou’s legal case may soon be over, but the crisis bringing migrants to his door shows little evidence of a conclusion.
Photo by Dan Bateman