View of a part of Ventimiglia from a bridge over the Roya river. Credit: InfoMigrants
A mask on his face and his feet bare, Mohamed Ahmed has his eyes turned towards the sea. From the stone wall he is sitting on in the shade of the pines, the view is breathtaking. The glittering Mediterranean. The hilly coast - Italian at first, then French a little further on. And the city of Menton, easily recognizable on the other side of the bay, the first city in France coming from this part of Italy. But the young man does not seem to appreciate this picture-perfect landscape. He looks at it without seeing it. Though close, Menton, and thus France, is inaccessible to him.
Ahmed is a migrant, a 25-year-old Sudanese from Darfur. He spent part of the night walking, hoping to cross the border illegally. The other part, he spent in a cramped and roofless prefabricated building belonging to the PAF (border police) of Menton. In the morning, he was put back on the road with orders to return to Italy on foot. But Italy does not want Ahmed any more than France does. "I feel like a soccer ball on a field between two teams. One is Italy, the other is France," he said.
In the face of "migration difficulties," the two countries seem to be building a common front. At the end of July, Rome and Paris even announced the planned creation of a joint brigade on their border to fight against smuggling networks. That will further complicate crossings. "If people are here, it's because they want to leave, they are determined. The police only slow them down and push them to take more risks," lamented Maurizio Marmo, head of the NGO Caritas Ventimiglia, which helps migrants in this region of Italy. On average, it takes five attempts for a person to get through to France. Ahmed has tried seven times in five days. There will be more attempts.
Since the end of the lockdown and the subsequent resumption of migrant journeys, dozens of people have been trying to cross the border in the region of Ventimiglia every day. There are various ways for those who are not driven in smugglers' vehicles: on foot along the shore - a route that has "almost no chance" given the police surveillance, according to a member of an aid organization - on the railroad tracks or, still more risky, through the mountains via a path nicknamed "the path of death." There is an added danger from trains and the risk of electrocution for those who venture onto them.
Every day, too, dozens of people are arrested by the French police and turned back. These "push-backs" are considered illegal because they are carried out without regard for asylum requests. The PAF of Menton has been cricitzed for its operations. Already the target of an investigation into possible offences, last October the police force refused to allow a member of parliament to visit the places where migrants are held.
This Thursday morning, like Ahmed, some fifty of them were expelled by the police, according to a logbook kept by the aid groups. It's a steady figure.
On the side of the road leading back to Ventimiglia, a city of retreat and transit for migrants, non-profit organizations have set up a refreshment station to welcome those who have been turned back. Bread, cookies, fruit and stoves to make coffee await them in the cool under the trees. An Italian nurse is also there to examine possible injuries. Exhausted and sweaty after a long ascent, those who arrive in front of this table smile happily, pleasantly surprised to see that here, for once, people are waiting to help them. "It's free, it's free," one of the volunteers reassures them, encouraging them to help themselves.
However, the relief of this comfort quickly gives way to anxiety. Many of those present - most of them very young - seem to be in a state of total confusion. Should we take the bus to rest in Ventimiglia or try our luck again right away? Which route should we take? Is it true that there are soldiers hiding in the bushes on the "path of death" to catch the migrants who walk there at night? Do I have to say that I want to ask for asylum in France when a policeman stops me? Can you write on a piece of paper how to say that in French? The questions and the confused looks are disturbing. Sometimes, just as suddenly, there's silence. In the cat-and-mouse game that takes place at this border, the big losers are those who don't master the rules.
"Someone stole my backpack from the PAF," said Nabil
Maouche, a haggard 27-year-old Algerian. Everything he owned was inside: his
clothes, 50 euros and, above all, his phone and charger. "I can't call my
family anymore," said the young man, who boarded a small makeshift boat
from the African coast in early August and, he says, managed to reach Sardinia.
According to Chiara, a member of the Italian non-profit organization Projetto
20k, the loss of personal belongings is common during nights at the station:
"Migrants' belongings are kept in a locker room in the PAF, where there are a lot of people passing through."
Binu Lama, a 22-year-old Tibetan woman, shows documents she can't understand. A "refusal of entry" from the French police and a summons from the Italian police, which were delivered to her in quick succession. She speaks neither French nor Italian and does not know what to do with them. But she swears that, so close to the goal, these papers won't stop her from trying her luck again in just a few hours. Accompanied by her husband and a group of friends, she wants to "find a job and send money to [her] family" from France, where she believes she will be able to obtain asylum more easily than in Italy. "I am not discouraged and I am not afraid. I'm used to crossing borders now," said the woman who has already walked through Turkey, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia.
Migrants have been trying to pass through the region of Ventimiglia for several years now. What has changed is the diverse mix of people making the attempt: Tibetans, for example. Jacopo Colomba, from the NGO We World, had not seen any Tibetans in the area for two years. There are also more migrants disillusioned with Italy "who want to try their luck elsewhere," said Caritas Ventimiglia’s Marmo. These are the majority of those who try to pass through. Coming from the Balkan route or from the island of Lampedusa to reach France or other northern European countries, many of them say they want to leave the peninsula because they don't speak Italian, they don't know anyone in the country, or simply because they have been ordered to leave.
This is the case for Ahmed and his two travelling
companions, also from Darfur. One of them makes a sound when he is asked his name, as
a sign of refusal. He will not give it. He makes another sound to show that he doesn't approve when his friend agrees to give his. The migration journey of
this 30-year-old has made him suspicious and defensive. He no longer knows
whom to believe or which side he is on. Like many migrants, he has
learned to distrust the authorities, journalists, and other migrants.
And with good reason: this nameless man went from nasty surprises to disillusionment. Like Ahmed, he fled war-torn Sudan to work in Libya, a country he believed to be prosperous. He remained stuck there for two years. When they arrived in Lampedusa after a sea crossing, the Sudanese companions were placed in virus quarantine. That period, which was supposed to last 14 days, was renewed and doubled without any explanation. Upon their release, the Italian authorities gave them seven days to leave the territory.
The smugglers do business out in the open in Ventimiglia. In the city center, it is not uncommon for groups of men, known to be there for business, to lurk around the station. "When you see them heading towards the platforms, it's because they have been warned that a train is coming," said a member of an NGO who prefered to remain anonymous.
Mohamed Sheraz, who met us outside the city, is so comfortable that he gives his name. Aged 25, this Pakistani refugee in France says he comes to Italy to "help his brothers" alongside his work in the construction sector. In this case, he "helps" five men, four Pakistanis and one Afghan, for 150 euros per head. Last night the migrants did not get their money's worth. It was a failure.
But other, more secret business is of greater concern to associations. Among the migrants left to their own devices, women are particularly vulnerable. "In the last two months we were able to come into contact - briefly - with three women," said Jacopo Colomba of the NGO We World. "They seemed to be constrained by something and were looking for a way to escape, but men interrupted our conversation. We did not see them again."
Thanks to weekly patrols, Colomba, who has joined the "Hope This Helps" project funded by the Department and the Liguria Region to document trafficking, estimates that about 50 women pass through Ventimiglia every month. They disappear as soon as they set foot in the city.
"It's a dynamic that is easy to observe," said Colomba. "Women, generally Ivorian [the Nigerian mafia, which was very active in the city a few years ago, has seen its activity decline] arrive by train from Milan or Genoa and are immediately welcomed by a person of their nationality. They are taken to a place near the river. Other people are waiting for them and an exchange of papers takes place. Then they are taken to houses, we don't know exactly where." The humanitarian aid worker, who says that he has warned the police but does not know if "word has circulated," says that these women are then integrated into prostitution networks in France and particularly in Marseille."Women are not non-existent in Ventimiglia, but they are invisible," said Adele, a member of the Kesha Niya association, during a food distribution attended only by men. "It's hard to know how they are and where they are."
Previously the Red Cross camp housed several of them. It has now closed.
Far from the traffic and power struggles, there remains a place in Ventimiglia where business is an ugly word. The Hobbit Café, run by the charismatic Delia, earns so little revenue that it struggles to stay in business. Delia has been serving free drinks and focaccia to people in need for several years. This outpouring of generosity, inspired by the influx of migrants into the city, has caused locals to flee. They no longer set foot in the "café des migrants." "My business is a disaster," said Delia, without thinking for a second about changing her strategy. The smugglers, the abandoned migrants, the Italian-French border and its constant patrols are all part of the same logic, which she refuses to accept. "Everything in this world is about money and profit. The only thing that doesn't produce any material profit is saving human beings."