France and Italy's refugee ping-pong

Hundreds of North African refugees are continuing to land on the Italian island of Lampedusa off the Tunisian coast, provoking a humanitarian and political crisis. At the same time, hundreds of others are attempting, usually without success, to cross the border between Italy and France, which is their final destination.

Published on 30 March 2011 at 15:05

“Italy does not interest us. It’s just a stop-over. We want to go to France, but they don’t want us there.” Camped out at the station by low walls that serve as urinals, taking afternoon naps in public parks or sleeping out on the banks of the Roia: most are illegal, some are refugees, and all of them are clearly desperate. Welcome to the world of the migrants.

Having passed through the bottleneck of Lampedusa, they face the reality of their own containment in Ventimiglia — a town populated by a potentially explosive admixture of young men in transit with no more baggage than a pair of jeans, trainers and a mobile phone, and worried locals who keep asking mayor Gaetano Scullino, “When are you going to get rid of them?”

Ventimiglia station is the third Italian stage in the journey for migrants leaving Tunisia. After landing on Lampedusa, they are transfered to provisional accommodation centres on the continent — in Bari, Foggia, and Crotone — from which they can easily escape. Then comes the train ride to Italy’s northern border.

A fax to the Italian police is enough to send them back

Italy is only a transit destination. Usually their goal is to reach France, where they can count on the possibility of help from relatives, and jobs that are easier to find on the Côte d’Azur. But negotiating the meager ten kilometres that separate Ventimiglia from the French border town of Menton can prove to be more treacherous than crossing the Strait of Sicily.

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For the migrants the French-Italian border is a virtually unbreachable wall. Attempts to cross it are hampered by the possibility of nightmarish encounters with border police, who are increasingly flagging down cars with dark skinned passengers, and mounting patrols in trains.

Anyone who is caught without the right documents is immediately sent back to Ventimiglia, without any questions about their status or their health. A simple fax to the Italian police is all that is required. We take them back without objecting.

Official attitudes in Italy are in stark contrast to those in France: there are no controls, and no one asks for ID. Our accommodation centres are overflowing, and no one knows where to send asylum seekers. And we wonder why should we bother detaining people who do not even want to live here?

Local people remain tolerant for the moment

Ventimiglia has become a small-scale northern Lampedusa. Every day, around 50 migrants arrive here from the south of Italy, and a similar number attempt to cross the French border. However, relatively few of them succeed: about 30 come back to camp in Ventimiglia before trying again.

And the numbers are steadily increasing. Today there are more than a hundred: usually Tunsian men aged under 30 with a scattering of Libyans, all of them armed with a few sandwiches and money for the train.

Until now there have been no public order problems. The residents of Ventimiglia, which was invaded by Kurds in 1998, prefer to suffer in silence. But if you listen to the talk in cafés and at institutional meetings, which are now held almost daily, everyone is warning that “if it does not change soon, the situation will be explosive.”

At night, the migrants camp in the railway station underpass, where there is a plug for their phones. In response to protests from the mayor, the rail company has agreed to leave the waiting room and the toilets open. During the day they spend their time in the town centre, wondering about a risk free route to France.

In a few weeks, Samir will be celebrating his 24th birthday. He was a child when he arrived Italy, and when he left school he got a job in a shipping company which subsequently closed down. Thereafter, he followed a girlfriend to Nice, where he now works as a carpenter. He shows me his French carte de séjour which entitles him to travel everywhere in Europe.

Throughout the day, he remains on his guard: “I have come to pick up my brother, who is 20 years old. He paid 1,800 euros for a passage from Sfax to Lampedusa, and then he was transfered to Puglia. When he phoned me, I told him, I’ll come and get you in Ventimiglia. So here I am. Yesterday, I travelled back and forth to Nice four times to see how the patrols are operating. Driving over the border is too risky: if we’re caught I’ll be arrested.”

People smuggling on the increase

People smugglers, who had largely disappeared when border checkpoints were closed down, are now increasingly common. They seek out the migrants at the station, show them a car and offer to take them to France: 50 euros for a ride to Menton, 100 for Nice, 150 for Marseille. They usually take three passengers per car, and leave at nightfall. Ten of them have already been arrested by police.

Then there are the rock climbers who offer to take the migrants across the border on foot, like in the old days before Maastricht. Samir is worried about being trapped: ”The train is the best. At least that way, we can travel in separate compartments. And I won’t run the risk of being arrested.”

Everything has been decided, at 8:17 PM, he and his brother will board the train for Grasse. It is time to go. Samir calls his brother and gives him a ticket, holding it like it was a winning lottery coupon. Then they hug each other and set off for opposite ends of the train.

Night falls. At the station they are spreading out cardboard to sleep on. Police are discreetly patrolling the deserted town centre. A new batch of migrants arrives on the train from Rome and prepares to bed down for the night. One of the phones beeps, it is a text message from Samir. It says ”Goodbye Italy!”

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