Controls at the border between France and Italy have been tightened again this week following a spat between the two countries over the issue of migration. Last week, an Afghan man died near the border.
The French authorities took the decision to tighten its south-eastern border with Italy at the weekend, following a diplomatic row between the two countries over the issue of migration and the private rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean.
The country announced it would be sending 500 extra officers to carry out checks at ten Italian border crossing points. According to the news agency Associated Press (AP), queues were already forming on Sunday at Italy's northern border crossings with France as more checks made the crossing slower.
Officers not only checked cars crossing between the two countries, but also patrolled the trains that run between France and Italy. AP said that traffic was flowing freely from France towards Italy but "barely crawled" in the other direction.
Passport controls in place
According to the German news agency dpa, the French minister of state for European affairs, Laurence Boone described the border with Italy as "closed" and said that passport controls were also being put in place.
There are several borders in this region, one on the coast between the towns of Ventimiglia-Menton and several higher up in the Alps. Several makeshift camps have become established in and around the Italian town of Ventimiglia as migrants make the town their home before waiting for a chance to cross the border into France.
Many of those hoping to cross into France are French-speaking African migrants, others might be hoping to travel through France to other countries in Europe, like Germany or the Scandinavian countries or further across the Channel to the UK.
French border police, according to AP, were asking drivers to open their boots, and even getting inside camper vans to check that no one was transporting migrants across the border into France.
Death near the border
Meanwhile, last week, in the early morning of November 7, a young 19-year-old Afghan man, named as Ahmed Safi by the Italian online news portal Telenord, was knocked down not far from Ventimiglia.
According to Telenord, Safi was an asylum seeker who had attempted to cross the busy motorway and was hit by two different cars, before being dragged along by a lorry for 500 meters until the lorry reached the toll booth on the road.
Reports suggest the young man had hoped to cross the border into France. Telenord says the young man had already boarded a lorry, and had got off the lorry at the exit from a tunnel on a darkened bit of road. The online portal suggests, citing the Italian police, that he may have been confused, or in a weakened state and was no longer able to evaluate the danger of crossing the road at that point.
The first driver to hit the man, a French man reported as being 56 years old, reported the inicident to the police. The driver of the truck was eventually intercepted on another motorway later and told police that he hadn’t realized what had happened. On November 9, police were still searching for the third driver, who was reportedly driving a car registered in France.
Long list of other incidents
The two drivers who have been tracked down both tested negative in alcohol tests and will be charged with death resulting from a road accident.
According to another local news portal, Sanremonews.it, the regional secretary for Italy’s largest trade union CGIL, Fulvio Fellegara, said that Safi’s death was one in a long line of migrants who had died at the border this year. Fellegara called the deaths "unacceptable."
Since October 2021, at least five migrants have reportedly died on roads or rails in the region. According to Fellegara, a couple of months ago two migrants were knocked down on the same motorway (A10) near the border. On April 2, another migrant died and on March 2, a migrant was electocuted on top of a train after trying to hide there to cross the border. A similar incident happened near Mentone station on October 31.
Ferregara then recounted more and more incidents where migrants had been found dead in and around the region, stretching back to the summer of 2021. "And that is just a partial list, because there may be many others about which we just don’t know. […] It is a list which makes my heart heavy," said Ferregara. He said that people who had been "invisbile" in life should at least be accorded the dignity of recognition at their deaths.
The trade union leader took the opportunity to call once more for a proper reception camp for people in transit in Italy to try and avoid these senseless deaths.
New Italian policy
However, Giorgia Meloni, the new right-wing Italian Prime Minister, who took office at the end of October wants to reduce the numbers of those in transit in Italy. She has vowed that Italy will no longer be the first country to take in the migrants rescued aboard private rescue ships who picked up migrants crossing the central Mediterranean route.
Last week, in echoes of the most previous right-wing government to hold power in 2018 and 2019, the Italian authorities left four private rescue ships waiting off Italy, before eventually agreeing to disembark the migrants from three of them.
The fourth, Ocean Viking, operated by the private rescue organization SOS Mediterranée, which had already been at sea for three weeks, was asked to sail to the port of Toulon in France where it eventually disembarked the 234 migrants on board at the weekend.
Meloni has called on other European leaders to step up and take more of the arriving migrants from Italy. France has already announced that it will be withdrawing from the most recently agreed (in June) European solidarity mechanism, in which it had offered to take in 3,000 migrants who had disembarked in Italy.
Calls for more European solidarity
Italy, branded France’s announcement "disproportionate" according to AP and "aggressive." The call for more European solidarity for frontline southern Mediterranean states has long been supported by fellow Mediterranean countries Greece, Malta and Cyprus. Once again, at the weekend, the three countries, along with Italy, released a joint statement calling for the solidarity mechanism to become obligatory and no longer voluntary.
Italy’s transport minister, Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-migrant League (Lega) party, also called on the European Commission to start talking about how to regulate private rescue ships. On Twitter, he said there needed to be more "fines, seizures and controls in sight."
He said "whoever made mistakes, needed to pay for it," and added that the Italian government was ready to be tough on the ships who hoped to disembark migrants on their shores. On November 10, Salvini also commented that he couldn’t understand why the French were getting so hot under the collar about having to disembark 234 migrants from the Ocean Viking.
"In Italy, almost 90,000 migrants have disembarked on our shores since the beginning of the year, and France has only accepted 38 of these. Across the whole of Europe, just 117. It should be Italy that is protesting," claimed Salvini.
French and Italian Presidents attempt to calm waters
The offices of the French and Italian Presidents sought to calm the troubled diplomatic waters between the two countries. After speaking, on Monday, they released statements reiterating the need for cooperation and strong bilateral relations between the two countries.
Italy's foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, is expected to raise the issue at a gathering of EU Foreign Ministers in Brussels later on Monday, reported the AP. Tajani, a former MEP and former President of the European Parliament, is a member of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.
With AP and dpa