French film sparks immigration debate

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LISA MULLINS: In France, a new film has sparked outrage over the treatment of undocumented immigrants. And it's also sparked political debate over the way authorities treat French citizens who try to help migrants. Anita Elash reports from Paris.

ANITA ELASH: The film �Welcome� tells the story of young migrants who descend on the French port town of Calais. Thousands of refugees from places like Iraq and Afghanistan arrive illegally every year, trying desperately and usually without success to get across the English Channel to the UK. They wind up living in makeshift shelters in the forest. In the film, Bilal, a 17-year-old Iraqi Kurd, decides his only hope is to swim across the Channel. A local swim instructor gives him lessons. When the instructor offers Bilal a ride in his car and then a roof for the night, a neighbor calls the police. Here, they show up at the instructor's door and tell him he's being investigated for housing illegal immigrants. The film's director, Philippe Lioret, says he didn't intend to make a political film. But he was shocked by what he saw when he went to Calais. He says he saw young men living like animals and volunteer workers who were helping them. He says that the situation reminded him of the Second World War, when some French citizens were prosecuted for helping Jews hiding from the police. And audiences here were shocked to learn that there's a law that allows the police to question and charge ordinary citizens who offer a helping hand to illegal immigrants. People were so outraged that the opposition Socialists persuaded the government to bring the 71-year-old law up for debate. Opposition deputy Daniel Goldberg says police recently questioned a social worker simply for talking to an illegal migrant. But the French government maintains no ordinary citizen has ever been convicted of aiding an illegal immigrant. Immigration minister Eric Besson says the law targets people who make money struggling migrants in and out of France.

ERIC BESSON: We must pursue smugglers with all our energy, because illegal migration rings are merging with other groups involved in prostitution, drug smuggling, slavery, and the theft of human organs.

ELASH: But aid groups say volunteers can get caught in the crossfire. They say 35 ordinary citizens across France have been convicted of providing some assistance to illegal immigrants. And many others have been questioned for doing something as simple as helping an undocumented man recharge his cell phone. French opposition parties have asked the government to amend the law so that it clearly distinguishes between smugglers and those who are just trying to help people in need. The French parliament is scheduled to vote on the amendment tomorrow. For The World, I'm Anita Elash in Paris.