VENTIMIGLIA, Italy—Welcome to the sunny but chilly last stop on the Italian Riviera before you reach France. Rich tourists from across the border, who’ve been hanging out in Nice or Cannes or Monaco flock to the big street market here every Friday looking for cheap but chic Chinese-made jeans, leather goods and designer knockoffs.
In the afternoon, they take the train or drive back with their treasures to glittering Monte Carlo or the Côte d’Azur resorts just 30 or 40 minutes away. Mostly they are oblivious to the so-called “mini Calais” of Syrian, Afghan and sub-Saharan African migrants that surrounded them here—not to mention an intricate underground network of smugglers, some working for free, some for profit between the borders. And they’re more apt to keep up with Monaco’s Prince Albert, Princess Charlene and their toddler twins than France’s new folk hero, a humble 37-year-old farmer named Cédric Herrou who lives in the rocky French hinterlands above Ventimiglia.
But it’s Herrou who’s become a symbol of a new kind of anti-government resistance in France as the third year of mass migration across the Mediterranean to Europe begins.
Herrou went on trial in Nice last month on charges of aiding illegal immigrants stuck in Ventimiglia. Sporting a beret that he rarely wears when selling eggs to the townspeople in his mountain hamlet of Breil-sur-Roya, Herrou was surrounded by hundreds of cheering supporters at the Nice courthouse holding signs reading “Je Suis Cédric.”
Asked by a judge why he helped the migrants—most of whom are Eritreans, Sudanese, Syrians and Afghans fleeing war or strife in their homelands—Herrou said he was horrified to see “dehydrated children” wandering around the streets of Ventimiglia, people dying on the roads, and refugees sneaking into border tunnels near his home. He had to do something, he said.
“I am a Frenchman,” he said, as if that should explain everything to people who believe in liberté, egalité and fraternité. And, indeed, scores of organizations say he’s being prosecuted for “the crime of solidarity” with suffering immigrants.
His stand has earned him thousands of followers on Facebook and many headlines in the French press. The left-leaning daily Libération called him a living “symbol of aid to migrants.”
Whether such praise will sway the courts has yet to be determined. A verdict in Herrou’s case is expected Feb. 10.
After his last hearing, Herrou went on French television, where he challenged former Prime Minister Manuel Valls on the immigrant crisis. A few days later, on Jan. 11, he stationed himself at the France/Italy border when the conservative French presidential candidate François Fillon came to campaign in Menton, which is the French town that lies closest to the Italian border here. Friends of Herrou stood with him carrying signs reading, “France, Where is Your Humanity?”
Fillon, for his part, opined that Herrou was “perhaps generous, but not responsible.” (This was before accusations surfaced that Fillon had generously but irresponsibly put his wife on the government payroll to the tune of more than $500,000 while she performed no verifiable work.)
On Jan. 18, Herrou reportedly was picked up with two Eritreans hiding in the bushes near the border.
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In Ventimiglia, Herrou sees what the tourists—and even many locals —do not.
Unlike the sprawling and wretched “Jungle” at Calais which was home to more than 10,000 refugees before it was bulldozed in November, the migrant crisis in Ventimiglia has been contained as much as possible by local officials.
The two refugee camps, which are currently without heat or hot water despite temperatures that reach freezing at night, are at the far end of this lovely old town—about five miles from the popular Friday market and shops. The bigger one sits at the end of an abandoned industrial park above a fetid river.
“It’s worse than being in Nigeria,” said a so-called “economic migrant” who gave his name as Lucky and who has lived with several friends from Nigeria in the refugee camp even since taking a boat from Libya three months ago. “The Italians hate us and we don’t want to stay here. But we don’t have papers yet and don’t know when we’ll get them.”
The border between France and Italy used to be open and police checked incoming trains from Ventimiglia only to look for counterfeit goods from the Friday market.
These days, “French cops are everywhere,” said a female doctor from Genoa who volunteers whenever she can at the two refugee centers in Ventimiglia. “French police are crawling all over the border and they catch dozens of migrants every week on the trains, in the tunnels, and in the mountains and send them back to Italy.”
The vibe isn’t much more welcoming in Ventimiglia. A strict new city law forbids locals or tourists from giving migrants food or clothing on the street. The do-gooders will be fined, police said, and told to leave the area right away. Local residents have been threatened with eviction from the town if they are caught helping the refugees.
As a result, there’s an eerie silence surrounding much of the desperation of the migrants here.
There was nominal local coverage of a 17-year-old Eritrean girl who was hit and killed by a car in a tunnel along the freeway in October when she was trying to cross the border into France one night.
But it’s a safe bet that passing motorists on the highway that cuts through a tunnel going between Italy and France don’t know that refugees are pressed up against the walls in the darkness—or that refugees are sneaking along the train track from Italy toward Menton, France only to be turned back repeatedly by police.
Most invisible are the migrants who fall to their deaths or are injured while attempting to traverse the Morto della Passo, the Death Pass, a dangerous crossing in the mountains on the Italian/French frontier. Criss-crossed with barbed wire and along dangerous, craggy rocks, the pass was used by desperate Jews in World War II.
“Some of the migrants, the Afghans mostly, have family in Europe and a safe way to get to them,” Daniella Zitarosa, 27, a paralegal who volunteers at the refugee center for women and children in Ventimiglia told The Daily Beast. “But the others leave and we have no idea what happens to them, especially the ones who try to go over the Morto della Passo.”
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Since the migrant crisis began in 2014, Herrou has driven down to Ventimiglia and brought refugees up to his olive farm where he has offered them shelter and and then helped them cross the border without accepting money. “We treat them like humans,” Herrou said.
Herrou is the most prominent of what he and aid workers in Nice, Ventimiglia and Genoa estimate to be at least 100 members of the so-called underground railroad on the French-Italian border.
Two other activists from this area were arrested last year as well but one, a 73-year-old academic, received only a fine and the other, a university researcher, was acquitted of the charges against him last month in Nice.
“The reason we’re helping the refugees is because of how badly they’re blocked here and how they’ve gotten stuck without anywhere to go,” Herrou told the Daily Beast. “They’ve traveled all this way risking their lives in the Sahara, then in Libya and then by boat here. And after all that they can’t get out of Italy. Or if they try, they run the risk of getting killed or at the very least, sent back numerous times.”
European Union law decrees that migrants may only get asylum in the country in which they landed, but most refugees don’t want to stay in Italy where they don’t know the language and feel it will be hard to get a job. They want to go to France, Germany or the U.K.
"Nobody realizes that local volunteers like Cédric are crucial," said Shelley Taylor, creator of RefAid.com, which launched the RefugeeAid app last year to help migrants. "The big aid organizations have a huge bureaucracy and are shackled to a lot of administrative red tape. They often don't understand what's going on on the ground. It's why in Calais the major aid workers left, thinking all the migrants had gotten on the buses. But lots of people didn't get on the buses and Calais began repopulating."
Herrou said he is continuing to shelter migrants and help them cross into France with his car while awaiting the verdict in his criminal case. He faces up to five years in prison. He was arrested twice before on similar charges but never went to trial until now.
“Nothing’s changed,” said Herrou. “The police know I’m still doing it and I’m not going to stop now. The court will decide and I’m not afraid of that.”