From the closed border in Italy: the reality on the ground to France: defending the right to asylum.
The Nice city train station looks like any other busy station, no obvious signs of migrants seem to exist. On the departure screen, two itineraries shows up for Ventimiglia, only 35 minutes apart from each-other, that’s how frequently the trains run during the day. Less than an hour away over the French border into Italy, for the cost of 7,70 euros, both countries are accessible for a weekend getaway for tourists or locals on each side of the border.
“Over a year ago, a group of migrants who were able to cross over from Italy came and stayed outside around our organisation´s building,” says Amel, a 56 years old volunteer for the French organisation “un geste pour tous” in Pont Michel, Nice. “The police came since a neighbour complained but they weren’t even making any noise, I also live right above and I never heard them at night. They were evacuated and brought back to Ventimiglia.” Since 2011, Ventimiglia have become a well known path where hundreds at a time struggle to get through in the hope to migrant further north. “Someone asked me in the street the other day, why I came here? I answered for protection,” shares seventeen years old Tajel from Darfur south Sudan, “My mother and seven brothers were killed back home”. In November 2015, the French government decided to reintroduce border checks due to its state of emergency which led to closing the borders around the country. “I went to the police chief and asked why not let them apply for asylum in France since they are already here?” further shares Amel . “He answered, I have orders and I must follow them but with that being said this will happen in the most peaceful way. I may have orders to follow but I can choose how to execute them”.
On the other side of the border, mostly migrants from Sudan, Tchad and Eritrea hang outside the Ventimiglia train station. Constantly guarded by the Italian police & military, most people being perceived as a potential migrant by the color of their skin are directly controlled by the Italian police & military as soon as a few steps have been made into the station. Less than a kilometer down, a long white rocky beach with bright blue water. For migrants who are stranded, unlike most tourists, life by the Italian mediterranean sea is far from a place where all troubles can be put aside for a brief moment.
Juru, Anwar, Adam, Saber & Abdulazim all from Sudan in their mid- twenties are sitting by the water, watching the mid-afternoon waves going in and out. The five young men left south Sudan back in February and were stuck in Libya for a couple of months. They finally arrived to Italy one month ago where they are currently stranded, hoping to reach France. After a three day journey on a rubber boat with more than one hundred people on it, an official rescue boat between Libya and Italy safely fished them out of the sea. They saw many drown in front of their eyes, Juru expresses “We are the few of the lucky ones”. They now attempt to reach France while currently living outside under a bridge near the Roya river where hundred others are also staying. “We only try once a week to cross, it’s too difficult with the police, many try everyday but it’s too exhausting” further shares Juru as the rest of his friends bathe in the sea where they also wash their clothes & shoes. When asked if they had any money to eat, Juru replies to their lack of basic needs with a sense of humour “No, we have nothing left, we eat once a day, volunteers feed us much macaroni, we are in Italy now!”. The young man’s slightly nervous laugh disappears slowly, he looks up and says “ I just want to reach France and learn the language.” Just like seventeen years old Tajel, Juru shares that his family, mother and sister were also killed in the conflict back in south Sudan. When told that Nice city is less than an hour train ride away at the cost of about 7 euros, the five young Sudanese men reply by surprise “only 7 euros!” as if that´s all it takes for a legal documented person to cross the border.
It is Friday late afternoon, the sun is still beating. After their day job, Brian, Karim & Axel volunteers from “Un geste pour tous” are loading up the organisation´s mini truck to do an unexpected round this evening in Ventimiglia. “We have received some unexpected food donations, so we will go there tonight and serve all we have” says Karim. A 30 minute car ride later over the border, the three volunteers enter a wide parking lot with at least 800 migrants sitting around it. Towards the end of it, the SS20 bridge which leads north towards the French mountains. Cardboards, old mattresses & covers are laid out right under it where many spent their night. Almost all who were asleep wake up and get in the line for food except one young man, his friend says “He is too tired to get up and eat.” Further back, their bathroom, the Roya river, where most wash themselves, clean their clothes & drink out of. Next to it, some have created their mosque, a circle made of out rocks with cardboards in the center to pray on. Two young men that seem under age are doing their evening prayer, when they are finished one of them says “this is our life” while walking back to their current & only roof, under the ss20 bridge.
It is night time, the last train departing from the small Italian city to Nice is at 22h42. As there are no police at the entrance, many migrants are waiting by the station, some on the tracks. A young Sudanese has one hand leaning on the train´s door and says “I would like to go in the train to France but it´s not possible for me”. It does not take long before the Italian Police comes by and evacuates all migrants out of the train tracks. The train is standing still, the French police are on Italian ground inside it controlling passports. Many instances can be witnessed when passports are asked in demanding tones to dark skin individuals only. A young female volunteer who served food earlier that evening to migrants replies to the police man “why aren´t you asking for my passport?” when she is asked to show her French ID card. The police man responds “ You are not a foreigner, are you?”. The train finally departs, until the border is crossed to the first French town Menton, police men come in and out of the train at every stop to do their selected rounds of paper control.
The train maybe the most direct way into France but due to its restriction to enter it many migrants choose a longer and more physical route through the mountains. From the Ventimiglia parking lot, a 25 km journey by foot up in higher altitude. Even though, the borders up in the mountains are also guarded by the police, some take their chances on the northern route to cross into La Vallée de la Roya.
It is a Sunday around 17h00, in one of the first French villages after the Italian border. Cédric Herrou, has currently twenty-five migrants temporarily living on his property up from route de Vintimille in Breil-sur-Roya. At the entrance, tents are lined up in a row leading to a hang out spot with a long white drape covering a few outdoor couches and a couple of trailer homes. Further in, a wooden deck with a couple of long tables and a outdoor kitchen that seem to have been specially built for the temporary guests that come in and out of Cédric´s property regularly. Since October 2016, The French Farmer became active in obtaining migrant´s legal right to apply for asylum once on French ground. Up to July 2017, Cedric has hosted around 400 migrants per week and registered about 1000 migrants while sending out three times more asylum applications than in the whole of the Alpes-Maritimes department in 2016. “It is a right to ask for the asylum status. While they stay here we act as witnesses, so institutions will allow them to apply for the asylum status,” shares Cédric in an interview. “If no one would be here, police and institutions could do whatever they want to not allow them to apply for the asylum status”.
Many currently staying at Cédric´s decided to continue their journey into France in just a few days. “There´s a lot of people in Paris, you are free to choose wherever you want to go but just be aware it´s a big city and it´s very rough” says Cédric to the African men standing around him. Before doing so, by law asylum seekers are required to present themselves at the gendarmerie (local police station) who is responsible to direct them towards the department´s prefecture. An appointment is made on Wednesday morning as 13 migrants among them 4 minors still have to get registered.
The following Wednesday morning, three hours has past, the 13 young migrants have been standing outside since eight in the morning along with active members of Roya Citoyen defending migrants rights and UJFP ( Jewish French union for peace). The police refuses to take them in and acknowledge their presence right away. “I have orders I must follow” responds the police chief to Cédric´s lawyer who points out their legal right. Finally, a permit is negotiated to legally transit to PADA in Nice City (an official platform in France for asylum seekers) to apply for asylum. The short journey to Nice city is done by car to avoid repeating a similar scenario that happened the 24th of July 2017. Cédric and 156 migrants were stopped by the police at the Cannes train station on their way to Marseille to apply for asylum, the farmer was taken into custody for 48 hours for the 6th time since 2016. The 8th of August, Herrou was convicted of helping refugees cross the border from Italy. The appeal court of Aix-en-Provence gave a suspended four-month prison sentence. “I feel like I’m not being heard at all by the court of justice” expressed Cédric to the media on the spot shortly after his conviction. “I would like the court of justice to finally take note of what is happening on the ground. That they see the minors isolated and alone on my farm living in a tent. I would like the court of justice to take into account the demands of these asylum seekers. At some point there are French rights which have to be applied by citizens. Migrants are people who have rights and by default the management of immigration has to be done by giving access to these legal rights.”