By Melis Ozbardakci, RRE Programme Associate
The prefecture of Imperia in northern Italy recently announced the shutdown of a reception centre in Ventimiglia; a border town sometimes dubbed the ‘Italian Calais’ given its bottle-neck scenario and poor living conditions. The Campo Roja reception centre, managed by the Red Cross, officially closed on 31 July 2020, which left a further gap in an already critical situation for displaced people in the area.
The Roja camp had initially stopped receiving new arrivals when Italy imposed a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown on 18 April 2020, meaning that 200 displaced people were forced to sleep on the streets. Prefect Alberto Intini announced that the centre would not receive any more individuals until the pandemic is over, and halted entries and exits after cases of Covid-19 were found.
Ventimiglia is a well-known transit point for displaced persons trying to enter France as it is located on the French-Italian border. Campo Roja was a response to the humanitarian crisis in this transit point, opened in 2016. As it was founded in extraordinary circumstances, there was no legal framework for the camp, which enabled the prefecture to close the camp easily.
It was initially designed to host up to 180 men until it was expanded with new housing units. However, it has been known to operate at, or well beyond, maximum capacity a lot of the time, and has been described as highly unsafe. At one point, the camp was hosting 800 people while there were only 360 beds.
Livio, who works for Progetto20K, a group which works to support people on the move in Ventimiglia, explained that the camp was closed for a month when a positive Covid-19 case was found, and the prefecture started to send people away. The number of residents of the camp decreased significantly, with only 30 people remaining in the camp by June.
The Red Cross was notified only one day before the closure. Since then, they have asked for permission to reopen several times, only to face refusals by the prefecture. Effectively, this leaves people trapped in an even more precarious situation than before.
Many asylum seekers in Ventimiglia still attempt to cross the border to France. According to Progetto20K, people arrive every day, and many of them succeed in reaching France. Despite approximately 100 pushbacks per day, they keep trying to cross. “There’s no place for people to stay at night.
After the pushbacks, everyone finds themselves on the streets, including children and women, Everyone. They live on the streets, just like they were doing in 2016. Small informal camps have started to grow in markets, train stations and citizens have started to complain”, Livio noted.
He also stated that citizens and Lega Nord, the right-wing party who are opposed to the emergence of refugee camps, asked for reopening of the camp as the closure of the camp caused refugees to be more present out to the streets. “It seems that no one is happy with the closure of the camp, not the citizens, nor asylum seekers. It makes the situation a lot harder for refugees and migrants.”
The prevalence of police violence, mostly at the border, with arbitrary arrests and detention, was highlighted as a commonplace occurrence in Refugee Rights Europe’s report ‘In Dangerous Transit’.  The vast majority of people on the move who were surveyed as part of this research, 71 per cent, stated they didn’t feel safe at all in Ventimiglia.
The report highlights extremely poor living conditions as well as the dangers related to border-crossings, not having access to sufficient food and water or medical help. 8.8 per cent of respondents cited the risk of violence or sexual abuse by police or Europeans as a risk to their sense of safety. Within this context, the closure of the only reception facility is particularly harmful.
Progetto20K is an organisation that works on the ground in Ventimiglia, providing support for people on the move who are left without a roof over their heads. They monitor the streets of Ventimiglia to learn what is going, and provide support accordingly. To find out more about their activities, see their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/progetto20k/
If you want to take part in their campaign to help asylum seekers in the streets of Ventimiglia, see their fundraising page here: https://www.produzionidalbasso.com/project/sostieni-progetto20k/