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Alex Fusco

(Dead) end of the journey: when migrants reach border towns

Refugees
Migration
European Union
Italy

The scene is depressingly familiar.

Several hundred black or brown skinned men and boys mill about a wasteland on the edge of a border town. They have no washing facilities, no change of clothes, and only a few prized possessions concealed in pockets or rucksacks. Every night, they bed down on the cold concrete, a flattened cardboard box for a mattress, and try to catch a few hours’ sleep while the steady flow of traffic thundering across the bridge overhead slows to a trickle. Tents are not allowed, although one has been erected and concealed.

None of these men have the ‘correct’ documents; some have no documents at all. None of them want to stay here.

If the refugees or migrants win and reach the next state, the whole business begins again at the next border

Across the car park stand another group of men. They are white skinned, coiffed, slick and steely-eyed. They wear heavy boots, and carry guns and batons. They wear uniforms and mutter into radios.

The two groups of men watch each other wearily. Barely 10 metres separate them, but they are worlds apart.

This wasteland is a car park in Ventimiglia, a town on the French-Italian border. It is squeezed between a fire station, a cemetery and a bridge on the edge of the town.

The brown and black skinned men and boys are predominantly from Sudan (70 per cent) but Ethiopians, Egyptians, Eritreans, Chadians, Iranians and Malians are also present. They want to cross into France – jumping on a train or walking through perilous mountain passes. Most are between 15 and 25 years old. Some have just arrived, others have been here for several months.

EU border towns: Migrants sleeping under Via Europa, the bridge linking Italy and France in the border town of Ventimiglia. Photo by Fotomovimiento
EU border towns: Migrants sleeping under Via Europa, the bridge linking Italy and France in the border town of Ventimiglia. Photo by Fotomovimiento

The second group of men are Italian, but they could just as easily be French, Hungarian, Croatian or Serbian. Their job is to stop the first group from achieving their objective. The game is a long, drawn-out affair.

If the refugees or migrants win and reach the next state, the whole business begins again at the next border. If they lose, they are arrested, jailed or deported. The unlucky ones pay with their lives, slipping onto train tracks, impaling themselves on wire fences or tripping and sliding down the sides of mountains.

This, in short, is Europe’s answer to the so-called migration ‘crisis’. Allowing for a few minor tweaks and local particularities, the scene described above is played out at border crossings across the continent, in Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Italy and France.

The level of police harassment, intimidation and abuse varies from country to country, as does the presence and power of international NGOs, grassroots projects or collectives and Mafia groups.

But the basic principle remains the same: within ‘Fortress Europe’ are a series of forts, located at border points, where people on the move find their onward journey blocked. These spaces are inevitably on the fringes of border towns, on industrial estates, in abandoned factories or the edges of forests, where temporary residents can remain at least partially concealed from view.

Even in these spaces, it is made quite clear to migrants and refugees that their presence is not wanted. Police patrols are increased, under the pretext of maintaining public order, and strategies designed to make their lives difficult and uncomfortable are introduced.

They are awoken by riot police before dawn and ordered to disperse. Their bedding is confiscated, and their access to running water denied. Food distributions by local groups are curtailed or outlawed. In other words, violations of basic human rights occur, not through negligence but by design, inscribed in the very policy of the state in which they find themselves.

The people are caught in a web of Europe’s own making. They have slipped into the cracks between the European Union’s 28 member states. No country is willing to welcome them, but no state wants the legal hassle of deporting them. Instead, they move and are moved from country to country, riding a farcical carousel known as ‘Dublin’.

The Dublin Convention, first signed in 1990 by 15 EU member states and redrafted twice since, requires new arrivals in Europe to claim asylum in the country of first arrival, placing the logistical burden of assessing these claims on border states such as Greece and Italy. Ostensibly designed to prevent ‘asylum shopping’ (a practice where asylum seekers apply in several states, or ‘choose’ the state where they are most likely to be accepted), the Dublin framework ties new arrivals in knots.

Many are forced to give fingerprints in countries where they have no interest in staying. Their destiny in Europe becomes tied up with this ‘transit’ country, as their attempts to claim asylum in other EU member states lead only to deportation to the country of first arrival. Instead of refugees fleeing war, asylum seekers looking for protection, or migrants trying to build a better life, they become ‘illegal’ aliens, criminalized because they have fingerprints in a different EU member state.

For many, chances of having asylum claims accepted are already slim – asylum mechanisms have progressively tightened since 1980s, and their testimony is systematically disqualified.

The Dublin regulation only pushes them further away from official channels and official camps, and into the murky netherworld of sans papiers – those without official papers. This is the context that is often missing from the debate, and the reason why many people end up living under bridges or on the edge of forests, desperately trying to cross borders to reach somewhere they can find work and slip into anonymity. They are the unlucky ones, beyond or de facto outside the asylum framework, with a destination in mind, but no legal means by which to reach it.

There is little evidence that walls and policemen patrolling external borders can deter migration

Despite the wholesale reform of the Dublin Regulation that is apparently on the cards, both the EU and its constituent member states remain fixated upon ‘getting tough on migration’, on securing borders and keeping certain people out. Instead of recognizing the complexities of migration flows and managing them with a comprehensive strategy, or addressing the stark global inequality that underpins these large movements of people, their response is simply to build more barriers and send more policemen.

This is true of both external and internal borders. There is little evidence that walls and policemen patrolling external borders can deter migration – a study by Migration Policy says the evidence is ‘mixed’ at best. While patrolled walls succeeded in curbing migration in small sections of the US and EU borders, the study says that ‘in both cases fortified walls did not prevent crossings into the United States and European Union entirely, but instead shifted flows to other locations that were more remote or less fortified.’

In the case of internal borders, the strategy seems particularly pointless, emblematic of an acute absence of solidarity between member states. Leaving Serbia aside for a moment, all countries involved in the fort-fortress securitization strategy are EU member states. Instead of penning refugees and migrants into countries they don’t want to be, shuffling them around on the Dublin carousel, should they not be working together to find a humane, workable solution? Or is this the best they can come up with?

For those temporarily living on the outskirts of Ventimiglia, the route to Europe has been anything but straightforward. But few anticipated their journeys within Europe would be as difficult as their journey to reach the continent. They learn this only now, huddled under blankets beneath a concrete bridge in Northern Italy.

Ironically, the road that passes overhead is called Via Europa – Europe Road. They have come a long way, but their journey isn’t over yet. The Europe they are looking for is still some way off.

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