In the last few weeks, more and more migrants have been arriving at the Alpine borders between Italy and France. Onward travel for migrants has been hampered by what authorities say are anti-COVID measures. That has led to some volunteer-run refuges closing their doors due to over-capacity. Now pro-migrant volunteers are calling on the state to help to resolve the situation.
Over the last few days, between 150 and 200 migrants have occupied the French station of Briancon, in the High Alps (Hautes-Alpes region), on the border with Italy.
The migrants, mostly young Afghan men and a few families, according to police sources, began sleeping at the station on Sunday night after a local refuge in France, run by pro-migrant volunteers working with the collective Tous Migrants, said it was forced to close its doors due to overcapacity. The migrants then made their own way to the station where they decided to bed down for the night.
In a tweet, the organization said that they had received more than 200 migrants in a recently opened building which is only allowed to host 81 people.
In the press statement, Tous Migrants said the forced closure of their refuge was mostly for "reasons of security." The organization said that it was becoming increasingly worried as it was seeing more and more Afghan and Iranian families with very young children trying to cross the Alpine paths from Italy to France. As winter sets in, Tous Migrants said, things could be especially dangerous.
Tous Migrants: 'The state should shoulder its responsibilities'
Since the creation of these solidarity refuges (Refuges solidaires) in Briancon in 2017, said Tous Migrants, the group had been calling on the state to shoulder its responsibilities and provide adequate accommodation to migrants and asylum seekers crossing the borders.
The migrants laid out their blankets in the French train company ticket offices SNCF at the station, shortly after the refuge was closed, reported local regional TV channel BFM Dici.
During the second night of the sleep-in, a local church opened its doors to some of those sleeping at the station. Although, according to the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP), it was unclear exactly how many had been allowed to move to the church by Tuesday morning.
Welcomed by a local church
The pro-migrant collective Tous Migrants announced on Monday evening in a press release that Briancon’s local priest had welcomed some of the migrants into his church. The prefecture had also tried to move several dozen away from Briancon during the day on Monday, reported BFM Dici.
Tous Migrants explained in a series of tweets that because the church was the property of the local diocese, the police could not intervene to transport migrants away to other centers or repatriation centers, or serve them with notices to quit French territory OQTF.
The bishop in the nearby town of Gap Monsignor Xavier Malle released a statement, via AFP, in which he is reported to have said: "I call on the representatives of the state to take a close look at the reality of the situation. It is not by making the welcome of migrants and refugees more difficult in Briancon that the immediate and structural problems will be resolved." The bishop added that he didn't think that housing people in a church offered a real solution but it should at least help to awaken a much-needed humanitarian sentiment towards people on the move.
Doors shut one day after inauguration
The Briancon refuge in fact shut its doors just one day after its inauguration. A previous migrant refuge in the town, in an occupied house, was finally closed down in September and subsequently boarded up by the authorities. The volunteers by that time had acquired their own property which was able to house up to 81 migrants.
The administrator of the solidarity refuge Jean Gaboriau told AFP that they wanted to ensure that all the migrants they welcomed were housed in safety in "dignified" surroundings. The local prefecture, issued a statement on Monday night saying that what went on in the refuge was outside the state’s remit since the association had taken it upon themselves to offer welcome to people who had "illegally crossed the frontier at Montgenèvre."
Refuges 'increasing migrant flows'
According to the prefecture, the refuges themselves on both sides of the border are "well known by smuggling gangs, and have caused an increase in the numbers of migrants attempting to cross the border," reported BFM Dici.
On Tuesday, the prefecture began to offer buses to transport migrants to other towns in France. Volunteers said though that it wasn't yet clear exactly where people on the move might be being taken and that the situation was in flux.
The prefect Martine Clavel told BFM Dici that the tactics from organizations like Tous Migrants of "attempting to put pressure on state authorities and force them to comply with their demands is just not acceptable."
The prefecture said that on Monday they had found "30 foreigners without the right to stay in France on the Col de Montgenèvre mountain pass coming from Italy, and this group had been passed on to the Italian authorities."
The Republican (right wing) mayor of Briancon, Arnaud Murgia, also expressed his disapproval of the situation. The politician was elected in 2020 and said that his views on migration at the Alpine border were "well known," during a TV interview with BFM Dici.
'Disturbing public order'
Murgia said that it was up to the solidarity refuge to manage the situation within its own properties but that the law in France hadn’t changed with regards to who was and wasn't allowed to be present on French territory; who would and wouldn’t qualify for asylum and so, he saw no reason to change his own policy regarding emergency accommodation just because the migrant associations were demanding it.
Murgia added that the local population could not stand this kind of behavior and also didn’t accept that so many people should be traveling these routes from Italy on into France. He said the migrants who had decided to sleep in the station were "disturbing public order" and that he and his citizens would not accept this kind of behavior.
'Heading for a tragedy'
It was a similar situation on the Italian side of the border. Piero Gorza, an anthropologist and spokesperson for MEDU (Medics for Human Rights --Medici per i diritti umani) and the sociological research laboratory Onborders in the Piedmont region, told InfoMigrants in a message that a combination of factors had led to the situation getting "slowly but inexorably worse" and that if something wasn’t done then "as we approach winter, there could be a real tragedy."
Gorza was particularly worried about the increasing numbers of Afghan and Iranaian families with new-born babies, very small children and pregnant women attempting to cross. He said on Monday, October 25, that there were at least three new-borns present in Oulx and that the refuge Fraternità Massi had more than 160 people needing a place to stay and only just over 40 places for them.
The situation in the refuges was at "breaking point," Gorza added. The Civil Protection authorities and the Red Cross took 70 of them further down the valley to Bussoleno to sleep as a temporary measure, but migrants want to get nearer the border, not further away so these measures don't really help the problem on a long-term basis.
Temperatures have already dropped below zero at night Gorza explained, although for now, the temperatures and weather in the day is fairly clement, which has only added to the numbers attempting to cross.
Gorza said that three closures of volunteer refuges in the last three months in Italy have contributed to making the situation for migrants in the region worse and that it was becoming "difficult to sustain." He said he was saddened by the "deafening silence" on the part of the authorities.
Gorza explained that despite "numerous promises and financial outlines," nothing concrete was being done and that volunteers like himself who worked on the ground could see that reception arrangements were "inadequate" especially "in light of the increasing numbers."
The situation has become even more difficult on the Italian side after the local bus company that used to transport migrants up the valley from the town of Oulx in Italy towards France suspended two stops nearest to the border at the beginning of October. A few more stops will be suspended in mid-December as the ski season begins, reported a local French news service Actu Hautes-Alpes.
The measures, said the bus company to Actu Hautes-Alpes, are to comply with safety regulations relating to COVID. But essentially mean that migrants hoping to cross the border on foot will have to walk an additional 16 kilometers or more, on often snowy and sometimes dangerous paths, in order to try and avoid detection.
Tous Migrants called the measures "scandalous" and said they were designed to try and place a strangle hold on the migrants who hoped to cross, causing them to take more and more dangerous routes instead.
In Italy, due to restrictions put in place to safeguard against COVID-19, anyone wanting to work who hasn’t already been vaccinated and able to show a "green pass" has to test every 48-72 hours. This has had the effect of reducing the numbers of available drivers for some routes.
Because of COVID, all passengers on the buses are also now obliged to buy their tickets ahead of time, something that many migrants were not doing before, preferring to pay in cash on the bus.
The SNCF in France is also expecting people to test before boarding fast trains out of the region towards Paris and Grenoble. Tous Migrants said in a press release on Monday that the prefecture had prevented the Red Cross from testing people for COVID in the situation, calling the situation thus created "absurd and revolting," effectively blocking migrants in Briancon and only worsening the situation.