Reportage. Patrons of a bar in Trieste share somber stories of migrants who try to enter Italy from Slovenia. They say the crisis has been exploited.

Migrant perspectives at a bar on the border

The thin trunks of the hornbeams can be seen in the first light of day; it’s quiet, with only a few rustles among the locust trees. The asphalt road is long, slippery in these strange foggy days, winding up and down the side of the mountain. From up here, Slovenia overlooks the plain, where one sees more and more houses in the distance: one can see Trieste, white, next to a milky sea that seems to blend into the gray sky. Five young men are walking down the side of the road. Bundled up, soaking wet, they have the olive-colored skin and features of Afghans, or Pakistanis.

Slovenia has set up a vast program to intercept people smuggling, and hundreds of smugglers are already filling up the few Slovenian prisons. It costs €1,000 to pass through the country to the Italian border. On a couple of occasions, the Slovenian police pursued traffickers’ vans all the way to the border, with daring high-speed chases in the first suburbs of Trieste. Then there are the mixed Italian-Slovenian patrols along the paths and the illegal practice of “informal readmissions,” a bureaucratic term describing the deportation of every migrant back to Bosnia, without any protection, without any rights.

The five migrants seem to have arrived here on their own, away from the main roads, through the woods. A small town is at the end point of their descent. There is the elementary school, the carabinieri barracks, the monument to the Partisans. It’s morning, and a small bustle of people have gathered in the square at the bar, which has just baked bread and strudel and is starting to serve coffee and cappuccinos.

At the bar, everyone speaks Slovenian, because the municipalities around Trieste are home to the majority of the Slovenian community; but it’s enough to say “buongiorno” instead of “doberdan” for everyone to switch to Italian. They saw those five young men walk by. “It’s normal, very normal, at least in the summer; these days it’s unusual, it’s been a while since we’ve seen any. Crossing the Balkans has become an almost impossible task. They’ve been coming through here forever: this border has seen people coming through the trails for dozens of years.”

“Before entering the village, they change clothes, you can find many clothes in the bushes,” says a patron, shaking his head. A young man with blond curls joins in: “They probably want to show up in town looking more orderly, cleaner, more presentable,” and he shows a trace of melancholy in his eyes. It could be just our impression, but it’s still very far away (and heartwarmingly so) from the angry comments that appear under some of the online posts of city newspapers, about the Karst being “full of discarded rags, a real garbage dump.”

The blond young man has clear ideas: “This story of the illegal immigrants has been widely exploited, only Covid has managed to shift people’s attention, and now, actually, there’s no more talk about it. The problem is that our society has stopped being able to see a future, it can’t imagine it and it won’t face it. Not only wars, but the climate emergency—these all mean massive migrations, but we’re burying our heads in the sand like ostriches, we don’t even talk about it. Walls and soldiers. What a short-sighted way to face reality!”

However, on the increasingly dangerous routes, and presumably in more and more unusual ways, some still manage to filter through and then arrive at the Italian borders from the Balkan cul-de-sac.

“It’s not a problem for the people of this region,” continues the blond young man. “Maybe now some are locking their doors – and they didn’t do that until a short while ago – but this is a subjective aspect, and I think it amounts to induced insecurity.”

“There are fewer and fewer young people here,” adds an elderly man as he adds sugar to his coffee. “We don’t seem to realize that we need new energies, a new workforce.” His wife laughs and winks at the barista: “With these run-down men we have… we also need new blood!” But the husband goes on with his line of thinking: “Think about Hungary. How ridiculous, not a single immigrant passes through, if there were any, and then they have mandatory overtime!”

“This continuous stoking of fear, this malicious rejection, they end up corrupting people,” says a lady with red hair in a serious tone. “What do you want to achieve by abandoning people on the streets? Whether they’re migrants or evictees or whoever. Without giving them an alternative to the streets, you sentence them to brutality, to crime, not to mention psychological trauma. That’s what we should be afraid of.”

We hear one story after another, small anecdotes of a daily life that still enjoys the rhythms of the countryside, that lives according to the seasons and isn’t frantic. The five young men who have come down from the woods are now standing under the canopy of the bus stop. “Sometimes they slip onto side streets, they take wrong turns, so we see them among the warehouses of the industrial area,” says a man wearing work boots that are white with cement. “A girl from the administration found two of them a couple of weeks ago. They talked a little, in broken English – they wanted to get to the police station. She ended up giving them a multi-ride ticket for the bus. What else could she do? But they’re not all like that: most workers look at them with suspicion or pretend not to see them.”

The barmaid reappears with a tray of kranz, from which the scent of pastry and jam is wafting up: “Can I say something? I am bothered much more by the wild boars. Those really do damage.”

Outside, a police cruiser slowly descends down the road. They had driven up to the last group of houses to retrieve their colleague at the end of his shift, on the rocky ridge that rises 350 meters above the plain. The patrols are going through the woods: each with two Slovenian policemen and one Italian, looking for migrants, right across the border where, in the mid-1950s, the Yugoslav border patrol were ready to shoot to stop those trying to cross. The terrain is rough, slippery, full of brambles and rocky crevices: it’s not easy to catch someone, and the migrants run away quickly once they see the uniformed patrol.

But sometimes someone ends up dead, and who knows how many of them there are whom we know nothing about—such as Bendisari Sidahmed, who fell into a ravine on New Year’s Eve a year ago, or the little girl who drowned a month ago while trying to wade through the currents of the Dragogna, clinging to her mother. And then there are those imprisoned at the Gradisca detention center, waiting for some sort of repatriation, no one knows, and where people continue to end up dead and there is never an explanation.

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