A French underground railroad, moving African migrants

A local hero to some, a scofflaw to others, Mr. Herrou, who was arrested in August, had helped his guests — all migrants from Africa — to cross the border into France illegally. He planned to sneak them to a train station so they could continue their journey. Some might stay in France, but most wanted to get to Britain or Germany. Early the next morning, cool and foggy in the mountains, Mr. Herrou and some volunteers in his underground railroad traded tips on which Riviera train station would be best to slip through. Antibes? Cannes? “Have you ever seen the cops at that one?” he asked an assistant. “There are cops at all the tollgates”, another piped up. Still, they had to try (…) Young African men, some little more than boys, are routinely pulled off trains, in scenes with ugly echoes of the French persecution of Jews during World War II. On the other hand, people like Mr. Herrou, who has become the de facto leader of a low-key network of citizen smugglers, are countering police efforts in a quasi-clandestine resistance, angered by what they see as the French government’s inhumane response to the crisis (…) “Lots of people have become mobilized. And lots of people call the police”, Mr. Jourdan said, describing the divisions among the local population. “It is an astonishing atmosphere.” One of the migrants, a girl, became ill, and paramedics were called. Mr. Herrou eventually decided that 14 were too many to put on a train at once. So he shaved the group to nine, and left. Later, the five who remained behind, all women, were arrested and sent back to Italy after the paramedics turned them in (…) For those who left with Mr. Herrou, it would take all day to find a train station they could slip through to continue the journey north. At Cannes, railway workers called the police. Finally, in the next administrative region over, the Var, the conductor agreed to look the other way, allowing three migrants to board at a time, as the trains went through. “We negotiated with the conductor”, Mr. Herrou said. “There’s a kind of laissez-faire”, he explained later. “One day it is yes, the next day no.”

Adam Nossiter in A French Underground Railroad, Moving African Migrants (NYT)