View of a part of Ventimiglia from a bridge over the Roya river. Credit: InfoMigrants

View on a part of Ventimiglia from a bridge over the Roya river. Credit: InfoMigrants

'If a migrant is in the Ventimiglia area, it's because he wants to leave'

Charlotte Oberti
By Published on : 2020/09/17 Latest update : 2020/09/18
At the French-Italian border, dozens of migrants from all walks of life are prevented every day from crossing into France. A fallback for those who are weary of this cat-and-mouse game, the city of Ventimiglia has become a merciless territory for migrants in recent months.
In the distance, the city of Menton, inaccessible to many migrants | Credit: InfoMigrants
In the distance, the city of Menton, inaccessible to many migrants | 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.

A "refusal of entry" from the French police and a summons from the Italian police | Credit: InfoMigrants
A "refusal of entry" from the French police and a summons from the Italian police | Credit: InfoMigrants

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.

At the refreshment point migrants can buy bus tickets to Ventimiglia Credit InfoMigrants"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.

Binu Lama 22 years old is trying to go to France with her husband to work and send money to her family Credit InfoMigrantsThis 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.

Abdelkhair, a migrant from Bangladesh, washes his clothes in the Roya River. Credit: InfoMigrants
Abdelkhair, a migrant from Bangladesh, washes his clothes in the Roya River. Credit: InfoMigrants

Once turned away by the French authorities, migrants have little choice but to go to Ventimiglia, a seaside town of 24,000 inhabitants, which is far from welcoming but has the advantage of being only 10 kilometers from the border. In the streets of the city, they are idle. Every night, the aid associations count between 100 and 200 migrants who sleep where they can: the train station, beaches, behind bushes, without tents. "Look what it's like here," said a disgusted young Chadian, who arrived only three days ago, pointing to the asphalt littered with garbage. "I sleep further down, near the river." He's not alone there: the banks of the Roya River, covered with vegetation, are inhabited by many imposing and not very shy wild boars.
The number of migrants on the streets in Ventimiglia has been unusual in recent years. That’s largely the result of the closure at the end of July of a humanitarian camp located on the outskirts of the city and managed by the Italian Red Cross. This closure, ordered by the prefecture of Imperia, was a hard blow for the migrants who had been able to stop there since 2016. The various buildings of this transit camp could accommodate some 300 people - but had held up to 750 at the height of the migration crisis. The camp's sanitary facilities, beds, access to health care and legal aid for those who wanted to apply for asylum in Italy are all services that are now a thing of the past.
"We don't understand," said Marmo, "For two years, things had calmed down in the city. There was no debate, no controversy. No one was demanding the closure of the camp. Now this is the result. Everybody loses, both the city and the migrants."
What is the reason for the closure? The prefecture did not respond to our questions. According to aid groups, the authorities had had enough of the shaky legal framework on which this camp, the only one of its kind in northern Italy, had been opened. Others argue that the upcoming regional elections, to be held at the end of September, likely motivated the decision in the hope of gleaning votes from the anti-migrant electorate. In any case, at the beginning of September, more than a month after its closure, the prefabricated buildings of the "campo" had still not been dismantled, allowing some to hope for a future reopening.
The wooded and stony banks of the Roya River serve as a refuge for migrants Credit InfoMigrantsIn the meantime, the life of migrants is now organized within the city itself, around the Via Tenda. In a parking lot between the cemetery and an expressway, the Kesha Niya association distributes food and water in the evenings. Snacks are served in the morning on the nearby premises of Caritas Ventimiglia. In between, there’s not much else.
"Minors and families have no accommodation," Marmo said. "Minors sleep outside." As an emergency solution, the Church of San Nicola recently agreed, at the urging of Caritas, to open its doors to families for a few nights.
But doors, in general, close more than they open. "Before, we used to rent a place there, near the river," said Projetto 20k’s Chiara. "Migrants could rest safely there, charge their phones, spend some quiet time for intimate things... It worked well. But the landlord wanted to end the lease in January 2019. Now the place is closed and there is no longer a safe place in Ventimiglia for this kind of thing."
Even such essential services as showers are no longer accessible to migrants in the city. The bathrooms of the Caritas association, the only options, are closed during the summer months. "The showers are very complicated to manage," said Marmo. "So in the summer they go to the sea."
Abdelkhair chose the river. Crouching under a bridge, leaning forward, he washed a t-shirt in the low flow of the Roya, which is dry at the end of the summer. He took the opportunity to wet his face. Originally from Bangladesh, he and his companions cannot linger here. "This is the Somali's corner," warned another migrant, who hastily got up from the dirty mattress on which he was lying at the sight of a visitor. Whispers and shudders let us know that other men are hiding all around, in the interstices of the bridge, from which a piece of comforter protrudes, and in the bushes. The boars, on the other hand, frolic in broad daylight not far from there.

About 50 migrant women would pass through Ventimiglia every month before disappearing as soon as they set foot in the city. Credit: InfoMigrants
About 50 migrant women would pass through Ventimiglia every month before disappearing as soon as they set foot in the city. Credit: InfoMigrants

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.

Delia manager of the Hobbit Caf nicknamed Mamma Africa helps migrants by giving them free drinks when they cant pay Credit InfoMigrants "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."

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Text : Charlotte Oberti
Photos : Charlotte Oberti
Editing : Amara Makhoul