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French Movie Alerts Public To Immigrants' Plight


In France, a dozen migrants came close to meeting a horrific end. A truck driver was about to fill a tank with sulfuric acid when he discovered the people hiding inside. It happened earlier this month in the port city of Calais. Illegal immigrants congregate there in hopes of hitching a covert ride across the channel. Now a French film calls attention to a law that makes it a crime to help these immigrants. Eleanor Beardsley reports.



ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: "Welcome" tells the story of how a French swimming instructor in the town of Calais helps a young Iraqi Kurd train to swim across the English Channel to Britain. Middle aged and disappointed with his own life, Simon, the Frenchman, admires the courage of 17-year-old Bilal, who has walked from Kurdistan to France.


FIRAT AYVERDI: (As Bilal) Excuse me. How much for lessons?

VINCENT LINDON: (As Simon) You want to learn to swim?

AYVERDI: (As Bilal) Yes.


LINDON: (As Simon) Cool. Where are you from?

AYVERDI: (As Bilal) (Unintelligible) Kurdistan.

BEARDSLEY: The director of "Welcome," Philippe Lioret, says he based his fictitious story on the reality of what's happening in his country.

PHILIPPE LIORET: (Through Translator) I discovered such a shocking world. In France today, we let people live worse than wild beasts. The police are violent with them. We hunt them down. And these people aren't criminals. They're simply victims trying to get to England.

BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)


BEARDSLEY: In one scene, snooping neighbors threaten to denounce Simon to the police when he brings Bilal home, and officers raid his apartment one morning at dawn seeking hidden migrants. Filmmaker Lioret says the hostile climate is encouraged by a law threatening citizens who help clandestine immigrants with a five-year jail term and a $40,000 fine. He compared volunteers assisting the Calais refugees with those who hid Jews from the police during World War II.

LIORET: (Through Translator) The repressive mechanisms are the same as in 1943. They knock on the door at 7 a.m. to take someone away. The end result is deportation. And sending these refugees back to their countries often means death.

BEARDSLEY: Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy's immigration minister, Eric Besson, recently visited Calais to announce that new humanitarian services would be provided for the migrants. But, he said, the Jungle and its trafficking networks would be shut down by the end of the year.

ERIC BESSON: (Through Translator) This is Calais. This is France, not Kabul. It's the law of this land that applies. We will treat illegal migrants with dignity, but in this zone, it is French law that will prevail.

BEARDSLEY: For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.