A French farmer was convicted for helping refugees. What did he do?

Cedric Herrou helped refugees from Africa illegally cross the border from Italy and gave them shelter in his home. A court in Nice convicted him on Friday in a case that has divided opinion in France.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

The court handed Cedric Herrou a 3,000 euro fine for helping refugees cross into France illegally but cleared him of all other charges.

Who is Herrou?

"He's like our father, our mother. In all my life I never met anyone like Cedric. He's very kind and he helps us, everyone here," a 14-year-old migrant told CNN in an interview.

Herrou is a 37-year-old olive and poultry farmer from the city of Breil-sur-Roya in Roya Valley, a mountainous region close to the border of Italy. The town sheltered Jews fleeing German-controlled northern and western France during the World War II.

He has been outspoken in his criticism of France's response to the refugee crisis, accusing the police of detaining "thousands" of minors and pushing them back across the border into Italy.  

The French farmer has helped hundreds of refugees because "families are suffering". (Getty Images)

How did he help refugees?

Herrou said he began helping migrants when he saw them "walking along the road" in July 2015. He helped hundreds of refugees over recent months, giving him shelter in his home.

His olive farm sits in Roya Valley, near the border with Italy, a popular route for refugees trying to avoid border controls.

At first, he would give them a lift to the local station, but when immigration control was beefed up in the region after last year's terror attacks, he began taking them deeper inside France.

The refugees he helped are mostly Eritrean, Sudanese and Chadian, many of them children.

Why did he help the refugees?

"I'm doing it because there are people in need," he told a judge during his trial that started in January in the southern city of Nice.

"I'm doing it because it has to be done. Families are suffering."

Dozens of smugglers have been arrested around the same area. But Herrou makes no profit by helping the refugees.

"It's not up to me to make a distinction between black and white, people with or without papers. It's not my job. Farming is what I do, my job is feeding people and that's what I do," he told CNN.

Under French law, all assistance to illegal migrants is banned unless it is to protect "their dignity and physical integrity".

While there has been debate over migration, France does not have a policy on how to deal with and what to do with the refugees. (AFP)

Herrou has been arrested several times but the cases have been dropped, with prosecutors acknowledging that he acted on humanitarian grounds.

The court in Nice, however, convicted him on Friday for helping refugees cross into France illegally from Italy. He was handed a 3,000 euro fine. He was cleared of other charges that he sheltered refugees and helped them stay in France.

The sentence is far lighter than the eight-month suspended prison term that prosecutors had requested.

How have people in France reacted?

At the start of Herrou’s trial in January, a crowd of many supporters and activists gathered outside the courthouse chanting “Solidarity!”

"If we have to break the law to help people, let's do it," he said addressing them.

Herrou’s unapologetic stance has made him something of a folk hero. Last year, local newspaper Nice Matin named him the French Riviera’s personality of the year.

Despite the solidarity villagers in Roya Valley show, other French citizens often tip off the police on the refugees’ whereabouts.

The farmer's supporters gathered outside the courthouse, holding signs which read, "Tried for having fulfilled the duties of France" and "Wandering minors, duty to assist". (AFP)

What is France’s position on refugees?

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Europe is under threat and France can not absorb all the refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria.

"Our societies will be totally destabilised,” Valls said.

The French government reintroduced border controls two years ago in order to halt the flow of refugees.

In December, the Office for Immigration and Integration in France was offering refugees 2,500 euros to voluntarily deport themselves if they managed to leave the country before December 31.

While there has been debate over migration, France does not have a policy on how to deal with and what to do with the refugees.


TRTWorld and agencies