Hamza Alami, 17, from Morocco, is sitting in front of the Ventimiglia train station, waiting for the right moment to test fate and attempt to cross the border by train. He knows he’s only 17 minutes and a €3.50 ticket away from France. He’s too close to stop now, after a month’s journey.
He left Fez, Morocco, on August 17 and flew to Turkey on a tourist visa. From there he began the march on the Balkan route, through Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Friuli and finally Ventimiglia. It’s an unusual route at this point, as most people arrive from Francophone Africa, Sudan and Eritrea via Lampedusa.
“I walked night and day. On the border between Bulgaria and Serbia I cut up my hand on the barbed wire,” Hamza says. “Now I’ll go to France, even if the gendarmerie will try to turn me away. I’ll let you know if I make it to the other side.” Then he gives us his number and boards the first train to Menton. The gendarmerie is waiting there, more ruthless than ever, deployed in force at all border crossings with Italy.
Every day, some 100-150 people are turned back, a number higher than the average for the past year. Since its suspension of the Schengen agreements in 2015, France has been trying at various times to reject everyone, including minors, despite the fact that they have the right to be received in any country of arrival according to the Geneva Convention. Many try to cross the border by train, even knowing that the Menton Garavan station, the first stop after Ventimiglia on the French side, is besieged by the gendarmerie, which scours every last corner of the trains coming from Italy to detain those without papers.
Isaac, 14, sitting on the small wall on the Italian side of the Ponte San Luigi border wrapped in his blue sweatshirt, knows this well. He’s just been turned away by French police and is now looking out to sea and thinking about what to do. A few feet away are Haroun and Hamed, both aged 16. They’re all from Darfur, and they’re each holding a refus d’entreé (rejection order) issued by the gendarmerie before deporting them. The paper claims they’re of legal age, although one only has to look at their faces to see that they’re not.
Isaac’s expulsion order has a false date of birth listed: January 1, 2005. “They were registered as of age in Lampedusa, where they were not given the opportunity to declare that they were minors,” explains Adoum Ismael, a cultural mediator for the Valdese Deaconry. “This is a very common practice. France simply issues them a paper that they’re of legal age and rejects them.” Sometimes the country across the Alps is the one that records a fictitious birth date in order to deport minors as adults. This happens after a night spent in the French identification containers at Ponte San Luigi, which is where those stopped in the evening end up.
“They put us in a small, dirty room and didn’t give us any food,” Haroun says. “We were afraid it was a prison, like in Libya. Fortunately, they released us this morning. We want to go to England, so we’ll try again some other way.” As Haroun gets ready to return to Ventimiglia by bus, a WhatsApp message arrives from Hamza, who has managed to find another way through.
“Yesterday the French police stopped me on the train,” he writes in English. “They pushed me back to Italy. I walked and crossed the border in the mountains. Then I followed the railway line and took a train to Marseille. Now I’m on my way to Paris.”
From Grimaldi, the last hamlet of Ventimiglia, one can get on the Passo della Morte (“Death Pass”), a 3-hour walk which takes one to France, via poorly marked paths, thorns and rope climbs. But it only takes one wrong step to fall into the gorge, especially if you’re traveling at night or in the rain. The Death Pass goes all the way to Menton, but often the gendarmes man this route as well.
“Increased controls only increase the human and economic costs of migration. There is no decree, no gendarme that can stop people, who eventually manage to pass, even at the cost of their lives,” explains Serena Regazzoni, who works for Caritas Intemelia and specializes in immigration.
According to data from the Valdese Deaconry, 25 percent of those passing through Ventimiglia are minors. There is also an increasing number of women and young children, while the hard core remains young men in their early twenties.
The numbers are so high that, although there is a 12-bed shelter for minors run by the Deaconry and Save the Children, the absence of support from the political authorities is having tangible consequences on the activities to welcome children and adults, particularly after the 400-bed Red Cross Center closed in 2020. There are many camps along the Roya River, amid swamps and filth, where it’s easy to get scabies and infections.
Some migrants decide to seek political asylum in Italy, but many wait for the right moment to dash across the border. They know that sometimes they’ll make it, despite the gendarmerie.
That’s how it was for Hamza, who told us in his last message on Wednesday night: “I have arrived. Thanks God. Now rest, then I’ll look for work. I am a barber.”
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