Just Passing Through? North African Immigrants Look For Cracks In French-Italian Border
Migrants fleeing Tunisia and Libya cross the dangerous Strait of Sicily to the island of Lampedusa and other landing spots in Italy. Eventually, many amass in Ventimiglia, an upscale Italian border town and resort in the north that is the gateway to Franc
VENTIMIGLIA - "We are not interested in Italy. We're just passing through. We want to go to France but they don't want us there."
There are tents in the station. Walls have become urinals. The parks are for siestas. Along the Roia River, which passes through the city, camps have sprung up. The newcomers are probably there illegally. They may be refugees. They're certainly desperate. They are migrants.
If Lampedusa, an island south-west of Sicily that has become notorious as Europe's first port of call for North African immigrants, is the neck of the bottle, then Ventimiglia is the base. Swirling here is an explosive mixture: lives wasted in transit – with just jeans, tennis shoes and a mobile phone as baggage – butting up against worried citizens, who stop Mayor Gaetano Scullino in the street to ask, "when will you take them away?"
Ventimiglia station is the third Italian leg of the journey for immigrants from Tunisia. After landing in Lampedusa, they are transferred to temporary centers on the mainland, in Bari, Foggia or Crotone. From there it's easy to escape and catch a train heading north, from one border to another. Italy is just somewhere they have to pass through. They dream of France, of embracing the relatives they are following there, and jobs on the Cote d'Azur.
But the 10 short kilometers to reach longed-for Menton, the first city in France, can seem longer than the nights of turbulent sailing in the Sicilian straights. For the migrants, the border between Italy and France is an impenetrable barrier.
The Alpine border police are a nightmare: they have intensified the checks at road blocks in the last few weeks, making quick judgments based on skin color. And on the trains there are merciless patrols. Anyone without papers is sent straight back to Ventimiglia. Police don't bother to check their status or health. A fax to the Italian frontier police is enough. We take them back with no questions asked.
The Italian authorities, in contrast, carry out zero checks, and nobody asks for documents. The Centers for Identification and Explusion (CIE), which house political immigrants, are already overflowing. Why stop these immigrants if they don't want to stay here anyway?
Ventimiglia has become a little Lampedusa of the North. Every day 50 migrants arrive from southern Italy. Some try to get over the French border. Few succeed. About 30 come back to Ventimiglia, camping out while they wait to try again. Every day the number increases. Now there are more than 100: all male, all under 30-years-old. Most are Tunisian, although Libyans are starting to appear too. In their pockets they have just enough money for trains and sandwiches.
So far the situation is relatively peaceful. The Ventimiglia residents, who were overwhelmed by Kurds in 1998, are uncomfortable, but they tolerate the problem - for now. "If the situation continues like this, it will explode," warns a local bar patron.
At night, the migrants camp in the underpass of the station, where there is an electric socket for recharging cellphones. At the mayor's request, the railway company is also leaving the waiting rooms and toilets open at night. By day, the migrants walk about the city, looking for the least risky way to get to France.
Samir is nearly 24-years-old. He came to Italy as a child. For a long time he worked in a travel agency. Recently, however, he followed a girlfriend to Nice, where he is now a carpenter. He shows his residency permit, with which he can regularly travel around Europe. Back in Italy just temporarily, he has spent the whole day wandering around Ventimiglia, watching.
"I came to pick up my brother. He's 20. He made it to Lampedusa from Sfax Tunisia by paying 1,800 euros ($2.500). Then he was transferred to Puglia. He called me, and I said ‘I'm coming to get you in Ventimiglia." So here I am. Yesterday I took the train back and forth from Nice four times, to work out whether they were checking documents. We couldn't do it in a car. If they stopped us they would arrest me."
The people smugglers, out of business since the European Union lifted its borders in the mid-1990s, are back. They lure migrants at the station, showing them a car and offering to make their dreams come true at varying prices: 50 euros ($70) to Menton, 100 ($141) to Nice, or 150 ($212) to Marseille. Three passengers per car, leaving at nightfall. The police have already arrested 10 of them. Expert hikers offer themselves as guides to cross the border on foot, across the overhanging rocks, like in the old days.
Samir is wary of traps. "The train is better. At least there we will travel in different compartments and I don't risk arrest." At 18:17, there is a train for the French city of Grasse. It's time. Samir calls his brother, waits in line, and hands over the ticket like a lottery receipt. He pops up the collar of his black jacket and hugs his brother before the two head toward different ends of the train.
It's evening and migrants are laying out boxes at the station. The large piazza is deserted, though the police survey the situation discretely. New migrants get off the train from Rome and set up camp. A text message arrives. It's Samir. "Adieu Italy!"
Read the original article in Italian.
Photo - Kokonis