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Border town: hope and fear in the ‘Calais of Italy’

On the frontier between Italy and France, the desperate brave the passage of death

Motorway, France-Italy border. From 2015 until today, on this viaduct several migrants have died trying to enter French territory. Picture: Alessia Manzi

“I play and dance drill, you know? It’s a music genre similar to trap.” 

Samir, a 17-year-old Somali, is standing outside the Caritas Intemelia centre in Ventimiglia, an Italian coastal town on the border with France. After a long, dangerous journey from his homeland in East Africa, Samir had been living in Sardinia but he decided to head north and join his cousins in France. And so he has ended up in what some call “the Calais of Italy”.

ʺIf I stay in Italy, I know that I will not be able to realize my dreams,” he says. “But I am sleeping under a bridge, and I lost my documents. Now I am stuck. How will I do it?”

A train whistles in the distance – a poignant reminder of freedoms Samir does not enjoy – as other migrants and refugees gather alongside the Somali teenager, hoping to receive clothes and blankets to help them through another cold January night as they wait for the right moment to try to continue their risky journeys. 

Inside the Caritas building, a group of NGOs, including WeWorld, Medici del Mondo and Diaconia Valdese, offer support and advice to the scores of people who arrive every day.

Between July and December last year, more than 3,200 people, who had made their way to Italy either across the Mediterranean or through the Balkans, ended up in Ventimiglia. But this is not a new phenomenon: Ventimiglia has long been a lure for those seeking to head further north and a flashpoint for diplomatic tensions over this movement of desperate people. 

In 2015, at the height of what was dubbed Europe’s “refugee crisis”, hundreds of people were turned back at the Ventimiglia-Menton crossing by French police. That same year, France suspended the Schengen free movement accords after terror attacks in Paris. 

Since then, although people keep arriving in Ventimiglia, the support offered has dwindled. Campo Roja, a Red Cross shelter that was opened in 2016 and could house hundreds of people at its peak, was shut down during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

“Without Campo Roja, the situation has deteriorated,” Simone Alterisio, a project manager working for Diaconia Valdese, tells me. He says French border police, known as PAF, have tightened controls since a diplomatic row between France and Italy last year over who should provide refuge to 234 migrants, including 57 children, picked up by the Ocean Viking humanitarian rescue ship in the Mediterranean between Italy and North Africa. 

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, newly elected at the head of a right-wing government, refused to allow the ship to dock in Italy and insisted France should allow the ship in. The row highlighted simmering Europe-wide tensions over migration policy with Meloni calling the French government “aggressive” and “incomprehensible”. Eventually, France allowed the ship to dock in Toulon but then said it was sending 500 extra officers to reinforce its frontiers with Italy, and announced “serious” passport controls.

Meloni was elected on a pledge to curb illegal immigration but, in fact, the number of those arriving has increased by more than 50% since she took office in October. She has said that Italy will no longer be the main port of entry for migrants crossing the sea from Libya and she wants Europe to do more to share “the burden”. 

With the war in Ukraine swelling refugee numbers across the continent – with almost 4 million Ukrainians registered for temporary protection in European countries – the issue has crept up the agenda again. According to EU border agency Frontex, around 330,000 irregular border crossings were detected last year, up 64% on 2021 and the highest number since 2016. The Western Balkan and Eastern Mediterranean routes saw the highest increases. 

Governments, particularly in eastern Europe, are coming under pressure and seeking resources to beef up their frontiers. Bulgaria, with Austria’s backing, wants the European Union to help erect a bigger border fence to stop entries from Turkey. Greece too wants to reinforce its frontier with Turkey. Poland already has a fence blocking those seeking to come from neighbouring Belarus. 

At a February meeting, EU leaders agreed to tighten border controls with funds allocated for cameras, drones and watchtowers – a chilling reminder of the negative attitudes associated with “Fortress Europe” in 2015/16.

“The focus is on having a functioning border so that we know if somebody comes to the border, there is a procedure that should be the same all over the European external border,” Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen said after the meeting. 

Such rhetoric rings hollow in Ventimiglia, just 20km along the coast from the wealth and glamour of Monte Carlo. Hoping to bolster their chances, some arrivals head into the mountains, about 10km from the town, looking to cross the border along a dangerous route known as the  “passage of death”, or passo della morte. This mountain trail was used by Italian Jews fleeing Italy’s fascist regime during the Second World War and they hope it will enable them to avoid the notorious PAF border police, who have been accused of using aggressive tactics to stop people crossing lower down.

“Some French NGOs have taken legal action against the PAF, especially on asylum applications that are not accepted at the crossing. No one can enter the PAF command centre. Not even French parliamentarians and MEPs,” Colomba says.  Since 2017, it is estimated that around 27 people have died while trying to get into France, either by drowning, traffic accidents or along the mountain trail. 

The road to the passo della morte winds up from the coast, switchbacking along tree-lined avenues and past old villas. I travel with Jacopo Colomba, project manager for WeWorld and as we drive, we pass a woman walking down the mountain with two children beside her. Colomba says: “No one told this family that there is a bus to Ventimiglia.” 

We later pass a boy, who stands alone next to a police station. He is looking out over a stone ledge. From up here, you can see the Balzi Rossi beach, the border crossing below and the beaches of Menton in France. 

“How are you doing?” Colomba asks the boy. “If you need help, you can find us near the station.” The child only nods. 

Higher up, I meet Enzo Barnabà, a retired writer and professor, who takes me to see the mountain trail the refugees and migrants use. He knows it well as it runs near his home in Grimaldi. 

Passo della morte is a name invented by a journalist from Milan in the 1950s, who named it so because, from that cliff, many, many people fell. In that garden there, you see?” asks Barnabà, pointing to a white building just below the cliff, “every day, up to two people fell. There are two signposts before you get to the precipice: one leads into France; the other leads into the void. Activists put them up to prevent people from dying, but every so often French fascist groups move the signs.”

We come to the “path of rags” or the sentiero degli stracci. Among the brushwood and the ground made slippery by the rain of recent days, there are piles of abandoned clothes, shoes, and suitcases. 

“Before entering France, people put on their best and lighten their luggage. They want to be less recognizable once they cross the border,” Barnabà explains. Up here, the sound of highway traffic has faded to be replaced by the murmur of the Rio San Luigi. A barbed-wire fence, some of which someone has lifted, marks the border.

Back in Grimaldi, I meet Filippo and Loredana, who have lived here for 30 years and regularly help migrants. 

“The passeurs (traffickers) are looters. A ticket from Ventimiglia to Menton, which costs three euros, can cost as much as 100 euros with them. To avoid the dangers of the trail, families accept rides from the traffickers. So many single women with children have disappeared,” Filippo says, sitting at a large wooden table in his kitchen. 

“Since Campo Roja (the Red Cross shelter) was closed, we have been helping these people in every way”, Loredana continues. “In the last few years, we have hosted 300 people. Our first guest was a Tunisian boy with a broken leg. And now there’s you,” says Loredana, nodding toward the corner of the room where a girl is resting on a small bed. 

“She is only 15 years old and alone,” explains Loredana. 

At the Caritas centre, migrants are filing in for practical advice and help but in fact, they need so much more. 

“It’s hard to figure out what work to do with people”, explains Giulia Berberi, a doctor and project leader for Ventimiglia for Medici del Mondo. “Among migrants, there is a high percentage of trauma due to the countries of origin or the journey, which the unfavourable living conditions here amplify. Some carry marks from self-harming on their skin and ask for help and attention after yet another rejection,” she says. “We don’t have the resources to handle the psychological trauma.” 

She stops to answer the phone. “Later, a boy will come in with an ongoing dental abscess,” she says as she hangs up. She would like authorities to open up a proper shelter for the migrants and refugees because without a safe space, there can be no dignity. 

“The situation has been going on for years. Some migrants leave their countries already with physical injuries. We have a temporary mobile clinic that comes twice a week but there are few healthcare resources. It is very complicated to connect migrants with national health facilities,” she says. “We would work decently, but we can only operate on an emergency basis.”

Isabel is one of the people waiting for help but unlike many of the others, she is not looking to go to France. 

“I’m from Cuba. You don’t believe it, huh?” she says. “In my country, I studied as a beautician and was a stylist. There is a lot of poverty, and I decided to leave. I came to Russia and then to Serbia. I started along the Balkan Route, but in Croatia, the police beat me up. For two months, full of bruises, I could not walk. Then I got back on the path and arrived in Italy. I would love to stay here. Cuba Is a beautiful place only for tourists.” 

It’s getting dark outside. In a large parking lot near the Roia river, volunteers distribute blankets. 

Farhad gets in line. “I escaped from Kabul when the Taliban returned. My wife and I were teachers. She stayed there, and I hope to see her soon in Europe,” he says, clenching his fists. He is clearly angry. “We cannot accept that these women live in the shadows. They have taken everything from us. I want a free Afghanistan.” 

He takes his blanket and slowly night falls again on the invisibles of Ventimiglia.

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