73-year-old Amnesty International volunteer on trial in France for helping migrants

A 73-year-old Amnesty International volunteer appeared in court in France on Wednesday charged with helping two underage Africans illegally enter the country, the latest case involving activists assisting migrants on the move through Europe.

73-year-old Amnesty International volunteer on trial in France for helping migrants
73-year-old Amnesty International volunteer Martin Landry. Photo: AFP
The trial of pensioner Martine Landry is the first of its kind in France involving a member of Amnesty. 
It comes a day before three activists — two Swiss and one Italian — appear in court for helping a group of migrants cross from Italy to France through a pass in the Alps in April.
Landry is the coordinator of Amnesty's refugee response in southeast France.
She risks up to five years in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros ($34,700) if convicted of illegally assisting two Guinean youths in July 2017.
She is accused of helping the pair, both aged 15 according to Amnesty, cross back into France after they were arrested and returned to Italy during a raid on the home of olive farmer and activist Cedric Herrou, where they had been sheltering.
Two migrants from Ivory Coast walk past hikers on their way to the Colle della Scala (Col de l'Echelle) to cross the border between Italy and France. Photo: AFP   
Landry claims that she did not help the teens re-enter France after they were turned back at the border by Italian police.
The white-haired campaigner said she stepped in only after they crossed onto French soil and took them to the police to register for asylum.
'Solidarity is not a crime'
Her case, like that of the Alps campaigners, has become a cause celebre among critics of President Emmanuel Macron's tough stance on migration.
Several dozen activists gathered outside the courthouse in the city of Nice holding banners reading “Solidarity is not a crime”.
In April, MPs voted to soften laws criminalising acts of solidarity with illegal migrants, to exempt those who provide them with free food, shelter or 
medical care. 
Helping migrants illegally cross the border remains a crime, however.
Amnesty condemned the case against Landry.
Photo: AFP
“Dragging a compassionate pensioner before the court on these surreal charges makes a mockery of justice. Acts of solidarity should be promoted, not punished,” its senior campaigner on migration, Maria Serrano, said in a statement.
The three activists on trial Thursday in the Alpine town of Gap are accused of helping a group of migrants reach France after dozens of anti-immigrant campaigners blocked another pass on the trans-alpine migrant trail.
They face up to 10 years in prison and fines of 750,000 euros each as well being banned from France if convicted.
NGOs have contrasted the treatment of the campaigners with that of “Spiderman” Mamoudou Gassama, the illegal Malian migrant who was fast-tracked for French citizenship this week after rescuing a young boy hanging from a balcony in Paris.
“A few symbolic gestures mask a policy of repression and expulsion,” said migrant support campaigner Michel Rousseau.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.