PARIS: Martine Landry said she did nothing wrong.
In fact, the 73-year-old human rights activist said she would do it again.
“I’m going to continue,” Landry told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview from Menton, a town in southeastern France near the border with Italy.
“I know I’m within my rights and I want to assert my rights.”
But Landry said those rights were put in question during an incident last July.
According to the activist, she was standing on the French side of the Menton-Vintimille border crossing between France and Italy when she witnessed Italian police forcibly return two young men to French territory.
She said she took that to indicate the pair were minors who had been in France before setting foot in Italy, which means “it’s up to the French to take care of their protection”.
She waited for the teenagers – whom she later learned were both 15-year-old Guinean asylum seekers – to cross into France and then walked them to a border police station nearby, she said.
There, she said, she helped the children deliver a written document requesting they be placed in the custody of France’s child welfare agency, which is where they remain.
Under French law, the agency is required to take underage, foreign nationals who enter France unaccompanied into its care, Landry said.
“The police is obliged [to do that] because it’s the law,” she added. “There is absolutely nothing illegal in that.”
But Landry, who works with the French branch of Amnesty International and Anafe, a group that provides assistance to foreign nationals at French borders, now faces criminal charges for her actions.
She is accused of “having aided the entry of two foreign minors in an irregular situation”, Amnesty said last month, a criminal charge that comes with a maximum five-year prison term and 30,000 euro (about $37,000) fine.
“I didn’t facilitate [their] entry, I didn’t cross the border with them,” she said. “I simply brought them to the police station, which is what I was meant to do.”
Her next court hearing is set for Wednesday in Nice.
Landry’s case is “emblematic” of a wider crackdown aimed at preventing French citizens from helping asylum seekers, said Laure Palun, general coordinator of Anafe, the organisation that helps foreigners arriving at France’s borders.
In the area of Menton, in France’s Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, at least a dozen people have been charged for aiding asylum seekers and minors, while another 40 people have been charged in the French Alps, Palun told Al Jazeera.
“Instead of respecting its own legislation … the state’s response is to intimidate and put pressure on activists and those who are acting to defend human rights,” she said.
Cedric Herrou, a French farmer and activist, was given a four-month, suspended jail sentence last year for aiding asylum seekers over the Italian border and inside France, where he has provided them with shelter, food and transportation.
A 2012 French law provides an exemption to the law against aiding foreigners in irregular situations in “humanitarian and selfless” cases.
However Palun said that since the French government declared a state of emergency in 2015, following a string of deadly attacks in Paris, it has enacted stricter controls and sent tens of thousands of asylum seekers back at its borders.
More than 50,000 asylum seekers were refused entry into France last year, Palun said, and two-fifths of those were minors.
Last month, French police reportedly arrested a 12-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker at a train station in Menton, Anafe said.
The child was officially denied entry and sent back to Italy on a train that same day, prompting a court in Nice to later sanction the French authorities for their “illegal” actions.
“It’s enormous,” Palun said, adding that the crackdown has pushed asylum seekers to take riskier routes into the country.
“Some people hide in trains, go on the roof of trains, walk on autoroutes … We’re notably seeing people go higher and higher into the Alps and taking routes that are more and more dangerous.
“Those people are putting themselves in danger because France is not respecting the procedures,” Palun said.
French policy ‘overhaul’
The French interior ministry said the government “does not look to sanction volunteers who help migrants in need of humanitarian assistance”.
“France applies legal, non-admission procedures at the French-Italian border, which allow [officials] to notify people with refusals of entry when they arrive there,” the ministry told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.
The ministry told Al Jazeera that France registered 85,000 non-admissions at its borders last year, about half of which were at the French-Italian border.
“France does not manage the migration crisis in an isolated way, but in coordination with its European partners, notably Italy, in order to assure the full efficiency of the right to asylum,” the ministry said.
In total, France received 100,412 asylum requests in 2017. Just over 24,000 of those requests were granted among the 47,814 decisions that were rendered last year, according to government statistics.
But in September, French President Emmanuel Macron promised a “complete overhaul” of France’s asylum and immigration policies. A new set of laws on asylum and immigration will be presented to the council of ministers on February 21, the interior ministry said.
“We are showing out far too few,” Macron said last year, adding that France leaves “hundreds of thousands” of people in an “administrative no man’s land”.
Le Monde reported in December that the government’s new policies are expected to show “unprecedented severity” and “unprecedented roughness”.
Under the new procedures, migrants will have 90 days to file an asylum claim in France, down from 120 days previously, the newspaper reported.
Liberation, another French newspaper, said the laws are expected to simultaneously “accelerate the processing of asylum claims and increase the number of expulsions”.
The French government also organised a meeting between European and African leaders last year that aimed to find ways to stem the flow of asylum seekers leaving North Africa for Europe.
For Landry, the French government’s position towards undocumented migration has “considerably hardened”.
“Europe is barricading itself and they are doing everything in their power to not take in refugees,” she said.
She added that her arrest is part of a larger effort “to make sure people don’t show solidarity” with asylum seekers.
“That’s the goal … to in fact intimidate others so that people don’t get involved in this type of fight,” Landry said.
But she said despite her ongoing court case, she can not look away from what is happening at the French border.
“When I discovered that, just outside my front door, migrants were being sent back, their fundamental rights completely trampled upon … I had to do it, because it was right there.”__Al Jazeera