Amid a row between Italy and France over migration policy, the French authorities have begun using drones at the border with Italy to track migrant numbers. Italy says France's interpretation of the figures is false.
On Thursday (May 11), French newspaper Nice-Matin reported that the local police prefecture in Nice (not far from the Italian border) had approved the use of drones at the border to monitor the number of migrants crossing for at least the next three months.
The report said that four drones would be used initially to patrol four different zones around Menton. One along the border of the Mediterranean sea; one around a big shopping center between Menton and Castellar, a third in the Sospel zone and a fourth around Breil-sur-Roya. On the Twitter page of the newspaper, a picture of a drone illustrates the story:
The French authorities said they need the drones because of the "many opportunities to access the border in these areas," adding that "It is materially impossible to prevent people from crossing the border irregularly without using drones," said the Nice prefecture.
Also read: 'Illegal methods' the shadow zones deployed by French police on Italian soil
Increasing tension, French minister accuses Italian leader of 'lying'
The move is one in a series of developments which have increased tension between Italy and France over migration policy. The French government, itself underfire from the extreme-right opposition parties who claim the French government is failing with its refugee policy, announced on April 26 that it would send 150 police officers to the Italian border.
Then last week, the Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani called off a planned trip to Paris to talk with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, citing insults made by French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin against the Italian government and the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
Speaking on a French radio station RMC, Darmanin accused Meloni of "lying" to voters by not fulfilling her pre-election promises to stop migration. He also said that Italian government "was incapable" and was responsible for increased numbers of migrants entering France via the Italian border on the west coast and over the Alps.
Although the French Foreign Minister apologized, Tajani and the Italian government said the apology was "insufficient" and should have been handled differently.
In the Italian press this week, French authorities were also accused of having reported higher numbers of border crossings than there actually are.
Border crossings: NGOs deny claim of increasing numbers
According to the right-wing Italian newspaper Il Giornale, the French prefect said that 12,607 migrants have been stopped at the French Italian border around Menton since the beginning of the year. According to dpa, that is a 40% increase. However, Nice Matin put the figures at around 9,000.
According to Il Giornale, "there is no boom of migrants on the border." The newspaper ran a story on May 9 in which it said France was declaring that there had been a 33% increase in the numbers of migrants crossing from Italy to France, but that was not true.
Lawyers and associations who help migrants at the border have denied that there have been such strong increases, reported Il Giornale. "The boom that the politicians are talking about doesn’t match the reality on the ground," said Mireille Damiano, a lawyer in Nice who works with migrant associations in the area and represents child migrants, according to Il Giornale. The associations say that the numbers are more due to the fact that because the controls have become so tight, migrants try several times to cross the border and each time they are caught, they are registered.
The migrant associations say the actual numbers of migrants in the area has not increased, and they can tell that through the numbers of people to whom they distribute meals. "In the summer, we usually give out about 300 meals a day, at the moment, the average is between 100 and 150," stated a spokesperson for the organizations.
Also read: Why are so many migrants arriving on Italy's shores?
The medical charity Doctors without Borders (MSF), which also works with migrants in the area confirms this assessment. "We are not seeing an increase in the numbers of migrants in Ventimiglia," they told the Italian press, including ANSA. "Sometimes the numbers trying to cross will go up, sometimes they will go down, but more or less, they remain constant."
🎧 Also listen: InfoMigrants' Tales from the Border podcast from Italo-French border (France)
Unaccompanied minors: full reception centers, alleged pushbacks
In April, officials at the French department responsible for the border region, Alpes Maritimes, said that so many unaccompanied minors had crossed over the border that their reception structures could no longer cope with the numbers.
On April 19, the department said a total of 1,202 unaccompanied minors had arrived since the beginning of the year, and 110 in the week prior to that date, reported the Italian language newspaper L’Indipendente.
The Italian authorities have repeatedly claimed that the French authorities are operating de facto pushbacks at the border and violating both bilateral accords and human rights. According to the Dublin accords, migrants should remain in the first EU country of entry, which would be in most cases Italy for those trying to cross the Italian border into France. However, French police are not allowed to push back unaccompanied minors, even if Italy was their first country of entry.
A volunteer at the Catholic charity Caritas, working with migrants at the border, told L’Indipendente that on the ground they were hearing that some minors were also being pushed back by the French authorities. "We are often being told by minors, that they would be left at the border and that the police had written down a false date of birth for them, or their documents would be taken from them by the French border police."
The journalist who wrote the story for L’Indipendente cited a 15-year-old migrant, calling himself Kalidou, from Guinea. He said he had arrived on Lampedusa at the end of March. He stayed for a few weeks in a center for unaccompanied minors in Catania, in Sicily, and then decided to begin his journey towards France, where he says he has an aunt in Paris.
Also read: MSF say France sending unaccompanied minors back to Italy
Kalidou told L’Indipendente that his parents had died in Guinea and he had dreams of becoming an electrician in France. "In Guinea, there are no real opportunities or permanent jobs, in France there are more opportunities." Kalidou said that the Italian authorities had looked after him, but because he already speaks French, he thought it would be better to get across the border and in to France.
Kalidou said he tried to cross by train and was caught by the Italian authorities. He told L’Indipendente that they had left him in a container overnight before pushing him back over the border in the morning. They registered his details from the documents he had, but he claims they changed his date of birth. He says the policeman told him, "you are not 15 years old, you are 20."
Kalidou says he showed the policeman the document where it states he was born in 2008 but that the policeman didn’t want to know.
A lawyer, Jacopo Colomba, who works with several associations helping migrants in Ventimiglia, including WeWorld and Caritas, told l’Indipendente that cases such as Kalidous are "the order of the day." He said they had seen lately that the numbers of unaccompanied minors coming from Ivory Coast and Guinea were on the rise. This is consistent with the rise in numbers of migrants in general coming from those two countries at the moment in Italy. Many of them had left Tunisia and speak French, and so hope to make it to France in the hope of finding work or study places there.
🎧 Also listen: InfoMigrants' Tales from the Border podcast from Sicily
Italian police take minors back to France
According to L’Indipendente, the Italian police have now begun taking the minors pushed back from France back to their French colleagues. "It is a real game of ping pong," commented Colomba according to l’Indipendente. According to data from the Imperia Prefecture, Italian authorities took around 360 minors back to France in the first three months of 2023.
In 2019, a group of five NGOs, including Amnesty International managed to get a parliamentary inquiry into the practices of the border police at the border between France and Italy. They documented many of the practices being reported by migrants, including the allegations of pushbacks of unaccompanied minors. However, despite the report, published in 2021, Martine Landry from Amnesty International in Menton says, "nothing much in practice at the border has changed."
On the Italian side of the border, reception facilities are also finding it difficult to provide beds for all those who need them. Many migrants end up sleeping on the streets as a result. Several of the camps that had been set up in the area have been closed down. Volunteers worry that as the numbers of arrivals in Italy increases, the situation at the French border is destined to get worse.
Volunteers at Caritas, like Federica, agree that there is a "migrant crisis" but not in the sense many politicians intend, but in the sense that there are not enough reception structures on either side of the borders. Federica told l’Indipendente, "we will not solve things by stopping people from moving around, because they will always find a way to cross a border. We should instead make sure that our reception system is set up properly to welcome people."
In the last few years tens of migrants have lost their lives attempting to cross the border, either by jumping on to lorries, hiding away on trains, or climbing high up in to the Alps, and sometimes dying of frostbite or exposure as they lose their way in order to avoid the frequent police patrols.
🎧 Also listen: InfoMigrants' Tales from the Border podcast from Italo-French border (Italy)