Mar 9, 2009

Welcome: film angers French Immigration minister

Welcome asylum seekers

Welcome is opening this week in France. It is a story of personal challenge in the face of discriminatory laws, red tape and enforcement.

A 17-year old Kurdish refugee named Bilal (played by novice actor Firat Ayverdi) is coached by a swimming instructor who hopes to prepare the young man for the challenge of swimming the English Channel. Bilal's dream is to join his girlfriend and play for Manchester United.

Calais, where the film was set, has been a gathering point for immigrants hoping to make it across the English Channel. The Guardian has an interesting take on the reaction of local Calais residents to the shooting of Welcome:

... audiences cheered at the preview screenings. "It's the most beautiful and most upsetting film I have ever seen," said Laure Ducastel, 31, a local resident. "It shows how the refugees and the charity workers are heroes and what dirty work the French state does to make their lives a misery."

The director of the film, Philippe Lioret, went so far as to compare the ordeal experienced by many migrants in France with the plight of Jews in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War.

In reference to the French laws that threaten people who help migrants the director had this to say to the newspaper La Voix du Nord:

"To see that a decent guy can all of a sudden be charged and that he can go to prison is crazy... It feels like it’s 1943 and we’ve hidden a Jew in the basement."

The comparison has angered the French Immigration minister, Eric Besson, who said Lioret has "crossed a red line" in an effort to generate publicity for the film.

Besson might argue with the comparison but the truth is a hellish situation faces migrants who end up in Calais. Since the closure of the Red Cross-run Sangatte center back in 2002, no substantial improvements have been made. During the winter local authorities caved-in and provided indoor facilities, but this was only because they didn't want to risk press stories about frozen bodies lying around on the street.

The migrants come from countries where life is already tough - places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and the Sudan. There is no state support for them in Calais. It is against the law to help 'illegals' there, making it risky even for humanitarian aid workers who provide the basic provisions of life. The migrants are the target of harassment by police. In a recent raid at a camp at Norrent-Forentes, those living there were arrested. The cops ripped holes in the tents and took all the cooking equipment.

Up to 500 people without status are surviving as best they can in the the so-called "jungle"- the woods around the port. The makeshift dwellings they use for shelter have been demolished by the authorities in the past. There were reports that the cops used tear gas in some of these raids. There have also been reports of migrants who have been lifted by police, driven miles to some remote locality and unceremoniously dumped.

Calais refugees

Hopefully Welcome will increase public awareness about the plight facing immigrants not only in France, but in many other European countries also.