France/Italy: The last frontier – migrants stuck in Italy risk all to reach France

In 2016, more than 180,000 asylum seekers reached Italy by boat, setting a record. So far in 2017, 94, 391 people have arrived on the country’s shores, and many of them have already either left the country, or have tried to cross the border into France.

Even though Italy has seen record numbers of arrivals for several years now, it is increasingly clear that the country has been left largely alone to cope with the issue and there has been a remarkable lack of solidarity and shared management of migration reception among other EU Member States. Whatever the reasons, the result we see is that Italy’s reception system is failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable migrants, and many feel unwelcome there. It is also very difficult for migrants, particularly the most vulnerable, to integrate in Italy.  

The Italian town of Ventimiglia, near the border with France, has turned into a main transit point for people trying to continue their journey northwards. Many migrants, including women, their children and unaccompanied minors, arrive here after a long journey from the shores in southern Italy. Others come to Ventimiglia after having spent some time in a reception centre waiting to hear back about their asylum claim, or after having received a denial of their asylum demand.

According to migrants’ testimonies, there are two ways into France from Ventimiglia. The stronger ones pay a smuggler to walk along a risky mountain trail, to arrive in the French town of Menton. Some walk along a highway at night that is so dangerous it has become dubbed the Pass of Death. Most of the migrants must try several times before they succeed, as they are pushed back by French police. They sleep at the foot of the mountains, on the Italian side, waiting for nightfall before they try again.

Some migrants try to cross the border by walking through the railway tunnel from Ventimiglia to Menton — as dangerous a route as the highway. Since September 2016, 10 people have died in the attempt to reach France from Ventimiglia.

Others, particularly families, try to make the journey to the French resort town of Nice by train. But they are often found out and pushed back, forced to try again until they succeed.“I tried to cross to France three times through the deadly mountain road but I got caught by the French police,” said Zakaria, a 23-year-old from Sudan who has been sleeping rough under the bridge for a month.

“One of those times they beat me, and another time they sent me all the way back to Taranto in the south of Italy. In Taranto, [Italian police] fingerprinted me, ordering me to pay a fine of 15,000 to 30,000 euros should I get caught [trying to cross the border] again,” he said.

Despite the threat, Zakaria is determined to try again, because he does not feel welcome in Italy. “In Italy there is no interview to talk about our problems, or about why we left home. They just want us to be fingerprinted by force; but we are human beings.”

Volunteers try to make the lives of migrants in transit a little easier. The San Antonio alle Gianchette Church in Ventimiglia, for instance, is currently hosting and feeding some 100 people — migrant families with children and particularly vulnerable people. Here, they receive medical treatment thanks to a volunteer doctor, as well as an MSF midwife, psychologist and cultural mediator who visit the church daily. MSF staff also visit the migrants living under the bridge. Since the beginning of this year, MSF has visited 1,860 patients.