The migrant crisis tragedy and the duty of hospitality

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Last week a court in Nice handed down a suspended prison sentence to a farmer convicted of helping the illegal entry of three Eritrean migrants into France. Meanwhile, the Italian authorities this month adopted a hostile approach to NGOs operating missions to rescue migrants from perilous conditions in the Mediterranean, accusing them of aiding illegal immigration. In this op-ed article, Mediapart publishing editor Edwy Plenel denounces what he says is an outrageous criminalisation of fundamental acts of humanity, which illustrates both moral bankruptcy and a gross ignorance of the reality behind the migrant crisis.

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One day we will remember with shame that in France, at the beginning of the 21st century, a democratic society, its state, its rulers and judges, criminalized that elementary gesture of humanity that is called ‘solidarity’.

One asks oneself how, when schools begin the new term in September, teachers will find an answer to pupils who question them about the conviction this month of Cédric Herrou, an olive grower in south-east France. At the end of the appeal hearing, he was handed a four-month suspended prison sentence for having given help to migrants crossing into France from Italy and which the magistrates argued was aggravated by his “approach of militant action”. The case was heard on appeal after the prosecutor's office argued an earlier sentence of a suspended fine of 3,000 euros, handed down in February, was too lenient. The sentence last week certainly showed no leniency for Herrou, for he is currently under investigation for similar acts (for helping illegal migrants enter, and circulate in, France) and, given that he has no intention of renouncing his commitment alongside others in the Roya Valley where he lives, close to the Italian border, he is now in danger of serving prison if he is again found guilty.

The notion of “solidarity” explicitly features in the French education ministry’s programme which introduces children to issues of moral and civic conduct (see here, in French), which is taught at primary and secondary schools. It features in the programme, coming just after an introduction to the French republic’s key motto of liberty, equality and fraternity and its adherence to secularism, as one of the “principles” and “values” that the education system is supposed to transmit to the young generation in order that the latter’s “aptitude for living together” is driven by “a common requirement of humanism”. According to the official wording, this educational programme (see more here and here, in French) is intended to teach pupils that “sensitivity” is an “essential component of moral and civic life” and that “there is no moral conscience that is not [capable of being] moved, enthusiastic or indignant”.

As of primary school, the idea of “helping others” is cited as an example of this necessary “commitment” in civic life and the march of humanity for which these lessons prepare children, inviting them to “act individually and collectively” in order “to involve oneself” in their surrounding society. In secondary schools, the tone of the programme is more insistent still, teaching the development of “a moral conscience”, promoting “the exercise of critical judgment” and “the sense of commitment”. The affair involving Cédric Herrou is therefore quite literally a textbook case that illustrates the divorce between a governing class who have renounced the principles of France’s republic and individuals who are intent on saving them by living by them.      

Just like Damien Carême, the mayor of Grande-Synthe, close to Dunkirk in northern France, who carried out his duty of hospitality to migrants and refused to buckle under pressure from the authorities to close the camp for them built in his town (see here and here), Cédric Herrou is a moral figure who represents that eternal resistance to the raison d’État, to the state’s cold cynicism and blind self-interest. The upholders of the latter have the habit of sneering at the very mention of the word “moral”, forgetting that the state to which they pretend to be the guardians actually teaches the notion to future generations, giving it a civic dimension by refusing to relegate it to the confines of things intimate or spiritual. Which is why ethical disobedience (see here), to which lay claim the militants who offer solidarity towards migrants and refugees, will remain as the very example of those battles through which humanity has grown taller, while the names of those who scorned and repressed them for their actions will have been definitively forgotten.

The inventor of the concept of “civil disobedience” with his 1849 essay "Resistance to Civil Government", the American Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his taxes in order to prevent them financing the unjust conquest of Mexico in the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War. French feminist Hubertine Aucler did the same in 1879 in her campaign for women to be given the right to vote. Who would not today agree that each of them were forerunners and visionaries, while the politicians and administrations which they opposed, narrow-minded with no imagination or anticipation, saw no further than their immediate power? The attitude of the disobedient of yesterday and today is as much political as moral: by taking the risk, by being indignant and resistant, they keep democracy in the state of an ever-ongoing work in progress. 

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?” asked Thoreau in his 1849 work. “Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.” A little more than a half century before he wrote those lines, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (the human rights charter established following the French Revolution) said the same, announcing as of its Article 2 that “resistance to oppression” was among “the natural and inalienable rights of man”. Unless one ignores every principle of humanity, who among us cannot recognise that there is oppression when states refuse to help men, women and children who are in peril or distress, failing to save them when they risk death in the simple hope of survival, and not receiving them when they flee wars and misery, droughts and economic disorders, neither feeding them or giving them shelter, not offering even the necessary minimum?

Far from originating in petitions made up of abstract principles, the words which establish the ethic of solidarity are enshrined in a mass of European and other international treaties, conventions, resolutions, directives and declarations which, since the Second World War, require states to respect the notion.  But when states flout it, with the active complicity of a governing class incapable of meeting its historic responsibility, flattering national selfishness and playing on backward attitudes of national “identity”, it is incumbent upon society to defend it. That is the sense of the actions of Cédric Herrou and so many other militants, and it is exactly because those actions unveil the injustice and cowardliness of official policies that they become unbearable for the powers that be.

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