This blog post is authored by RRE’s Advocacy and Policy Manager, Alice Lucas, following a recent visit to Ventimiglia on the French-Italian border. The dire bottleneck scenario unfolding on the French-Italian border continues to cause irrevocable harm to the refugees and displaced people in the area, who are trapped in a cycle of violent push-backs by authorities.
As an entry point country into Europe, Italy has long been struggling with the volume of asylum applications, meaning that asylum application decisions can often take upwards of a year[i]. Meanwhile, conditions in Italian reception centres are the source of continued condemnation by civil society and human rights actors[ii], with many asylum applicants struggling to access work[iii], and left to sleep rough despite having entered the asylum system. The implementation of the so-called Salvini Decree, which revokes humanitarian protection permits and is likely lead to many becoming destitute, has further added to the challenges faced by refugees and displaced people in Italy[iv]. As a result of their precarious living situation and uncertain status, as well as the long waits they face for a decision on their asylum application, a strong urge to be reunited quickly with family in other EU states, or the desire to reach another European destination for linguistic, professional, community or other reasons, many displaced people take their chances to leave Italy via the French border.
Since the reintroduction of border controls at the border in 2015 due to COP 21, with the subsequent declaration of a State of Emergency following the terror attacks in Paris and Nice in 2015 and 2016 respectively, the Schengen agreement has effectively been suspended[v]. Refugees and displaced people seeking to leave Italy and travel to France are therefore pushed back at the border by French authorities and denied their right to asylum[vi].
RRE recently returned to Ventimiglia, following its field research study in the area in 2017[vii], to assess the situation on the ground and explore opportunities for strategic advocacy with civil society and NGO’s, who are currently working tirelessly to address the emergency unfolding in the area.
Living conditions in the area are extremely poor with some 150 individuals currently residing in the Red Cross Camp just outside Ventimiglia town, and others sleeping rough on the streets. Since the clearance of the informal camp along the Roja river, refugees and displaced people are dispersed, sleeping at the train station and on the beach, seeking to avoid attracting the attention of authorities who will move them on, usually without providing them with a place to go instead.
Civil society organisations working in the area have long raised concerns over conditions in the official camp, with reports of inadequate beds, poor sanitation facilities and insufficient food provision. Organisations report that the rules for entering the camp constantly change, dependent on the will of the local municipality. Moreover, everyone entering the camp has to be fingerprinted, which further adds to the sense of distrust among the displaced population – although it is RRE’s understanding that this does not form part of the Eurodac database[viii].
The precarious living conditions experienced by displaced people in the area, and the lack of clarity over the official support available at the Red Cross Camp, are likely to compound mental and physical health concerns already rampant among those who have faced torture and violence in Libya and at other stages of their journey.
According to a recent report by Anafé[ix], current practices by French authorities continue to regularly deny the rights of displaced people in contravention of the national legal framework. It is RRE’s understanding that procedures relating to the refus d’entrée, an official document provided by French authorities denying an individual access to French territory, are often not carried out. Instead, these documents are signed by officers without the qualification to do so, while documents are not provided to the individual in a language that they can understand, nor are they informed of their rights.
The push-backs of minors at the border, despite successful litigation against the French state regarding this practice[x], also continues to be a source of concern. RRE were told of incidences in which French police confiscated birth certificates from minors, stating that they were false documents, while there was no avenue available to minors to challenge, nor to retrieve their birth certificates once they had been pushed back to Italy. RRE was also told of circumstances in which minors were pushed back to Italy as they had previously been registered as adults in the Italian hotspots. RRE understand that many children claim to be adults in order to be able to leave the centres, not fully understanding the implications of such a decision.
Individuals pushed back at the border are moreover held in unsuitable containers overnight[xi], sometimes for over 12 hours, with little to no access to food or water[xii]. Civil society organisations working on the ground have been attempting to improve conditions in these containers for several years, while the General Controller on Places of Detention (CGLPL), has raised concerns regarding the deprivation of liberty at the border[xiii].
The closure of the border and the violent approach of French border police carrying out constant and forceful push-backs – in the absence of meaningful communication, guidance and information – means that individuals take increasingly life-threatening journeys via motorway tunnels, train tracks and mountain passes, which have reportedly led to many instances of serious injuries, mountain falls, hypothermia, frostbite and death.
Forced transfers to Taranto
In addition to the practice of push-backs at the border, the Italian authorities conduct forced transfers to the Taranto hotspot in southern Italy. It is RRE’s understanding that a coach is hired to transport individuals to the South, and that, on the day of the transfer, police ‘round up’ individuals in Ventimiglia town in an attempt to fill as many places as possible. This expensive policy, where each coach is accompanied by a police transport for the long journey, appears to be wholly ineffective and is roundly condemned by civil society actors on the ground.
With the implementation of the new Salvini Decree, there is a very real concern that the situation at the border will deteriorate, as those who have been denied protection and support under the new law will attempt to cross the border in to France. Moreover, a factor compounding the desperate situation at the border is the increasingly present criminalisation of aid and NGO work, and the prosecution of humanitarian actors on the ground, accusing them of facilitating illegal entry[xiv].
The situation at the French-Italian border is hence in urgent need of an alternative solution in which the rights and safety of displaced people takes centre-stage. Italian authorities ought to ensure that the long-promised accommodation centre for minors is opened in Ventimiglia town, with robust safeguarding systems, supported by civil society organisations, and with social workers, interpreters, therapists, medics and child safeguarding specialists, with specific provisions for girls. Moreover, the Italian government ought to instruct local authorities to cease the forced transfer of refugees and displaced people to the Taranto hotspot.
On the French side, border police must no longer undertake push backs in contravention of national asylum law and border procedures, while the illegal push-backs of minors must under no circumstances take place. Detention of displaced people must only take place as a last resort while detention conditions must be vastly improved – the detention of children must end. Both French and Italian authorities must urgently take steps to minimize the use of violence at the border, ensuring that international human rights obligations are upheld and that authorities are trained in safeguarding and protection mechanisms.
Throughout 2019, RRE will be working alongside partners to achieve incremental change to the current untenable situation unfolding at the border and to ensure that the human rights of refugees and displaced people are upheld.
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With special thanks to Livio and Chiara at progetto20k for facilitating the visit, introductions and overall support and to Kesha Niya for their invaluable insights and support throughout the trip.
[iv] See https://www.irinnews.org/news-feature/2018/12/07/new-italian-law-adds-unofficial-clampdown-aid-asylum-seekers and https://www.pri.org/stories/2019-02-01/after-salvini-decree-evictions-refugees-italy-face-uncertain-future