The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The French-Italian border reveals the essence of the European clash on migration

A migrant caught hiding on a train from Italy is guarded by French police officers at the Menton-Garavan station. (Laurence Geai/For The Washington Post)
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MENTON, France — The trains coming from Italy arrive at a station one mile past the French border, and that is where the journey for migrants tends to stop. French police board the trains, walk past beachgoers, look under seats and force their way into bathrooms. They take undocumented migrants off the trains, drive them up a hilly road and deposit them back at the Italian border.

Those denied entry typically walk the five miles back to Ventimiglia, the Italian town they started from, where they can catch another train to France and try again.

“I’m already thinking about the next place I’ll hide,” said Mohammed Yaugoub Ali, 19, from Sudan.

The ritual, playing out day after day in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean, illustrates the central tension in Europe’s debate over its responsibilities toward migrants — a debate that has risen to the level of political crisis even as the flow of new migrants has slowed significantly since 2015.

On the French side of the border, President Emmanuel Macron has lectured Italy and other European Union members on the importance of welcoming people fleeing oppression, in accordance, he notes, with European principles and values.

But while he is willing to make allowances for some of the neediest refugees requesting asylum in France, Macron has taken a severe stance on migrants seeking economic opportunities, and he has resisted resettling those who have had a chance to apply for asylum elsewhere in Europe. France has not yet taken in all the refugees it promised to accept from the front-line countries of Italy and Greece in 2015.

Italians, meanwhile, object that migrants are being fenced out by foreign leaders — in France, Switzerland and Austria — looking out only for themselves. About 400,000 people have applied for asylum in Italy over the past four years. The Italians insist other European countries have an obligation to share that burden. When Macron recently described rising nationalism in Europe as a “leprosy,” Italian deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio shot back that the “real leprosy is the hypocrisy of someone who pushes back immigrants at Ventimiglia.”

European leaders are meeting in Brussels this week to try to resolve these differences. On the line is the political future of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has encouraged European countries to absorb migrants. Merkel said ahead of the two-day summit that the issue of migration could determine “the fate of the European Union.”

Early Friday, European Council President Donald Tusk announced that, after working through the night, members had agreed on a list of diplomatic conclusions, including on migration. Yet a coordinated response to migration has so far eluded the E.U. And heightened border control measures in nominally liberal members states such as France suggest freedom of movement, a founding principle of the E.U., may be lost for good.

“Mr. Macron has closed his border — totally,” said Andrea Spinosi, a top official in Ventimiglia with the League, a far-right party that as a partner in Italy’s new governing coalition is leading a migration-based populist rebellion. “All these migrants, they all want to go to France,” Spinosi said. “And France dares to say we are the racist ones.”

It is the Italian side of the border that has become the backdrop for the thwarted plans of migrants. More than 4,000 migrants have arrived in Ventimiglia in the first four months of this year, according to Oxfam, traveling through Italy after Mediterranean rescue ships deposited them at ports in the country’s south. Europe requires asylum seekers to register in the country where they first land — a rule that burdens front line countries and that Italy is lobbying to scrap — but many migrants try to move on anyway. Some have family living elsewhere in Europe. Some speak French. Some are seeking a healthier economy where they can find work and pay debts to smugglers or support their families. So, they board trains or take furtive and sometimes deadly treks through the mountains of the French Riviera.

“We are young boys, we need work,” said David Omoh, 22, a Nigerian who said he has a work permit in Italy but has not been able to find a job. Omoh said he had tried three times, without success, to enter France.

Every day, along the winding mountainside road used by runners and bicyclists, migrants like Omoh walk back from France to Ventimiglia carrying backpacks and heavy clothing. They wind past ochre-colored vacation homes and little cafes, head through dark tunnels and finally arrive back at a city of 25,000 where residents say they are at a loss for what to do.

In Ventimiglia, migrants sometimes sleep in front of the train station and in a makeshift encampment under a highway overpass. There is an official Red Cross camp, too, but it is far removed from the town center, and some migrants do not want to use it anyway. In recent months, police several times have cleared the makeshift encampment — only to watch it grow back within a few hours.

In the surrounding neighborhood, residents say businesses have closed and housing prices have fallen. Some in the community have participated in protests. Data suggests voter support for the far-right League has risen more than tenfold, to 30 percent, over the past five years.

“The solidarity got weaker,” said Ventimiglia’s left-center ­mayor, Enrico Ioculano, who was elected in 2014. “There is a sense of tiredness.” Ioculano said mayors from the Italian side and the French side occasionally get together to cooperate on tourism and the management of historical sites. But they avoid the topic of migration. “On that issue, there is a taboo,” he said. “[The French] are very good at avoiding the question.”

Across the border, in a town eight miles away, the perspective is different. France has borne the brunt of Europe’s struggle with terrorist violence, and anxieties about terrorist attacks have led to fears about those coming into the country. Last year, France received 14 percent of the E.U.’s 200,000 new asylum applications, and Italy received 20 percent; only Germany handled more.

Menton mayor Jean-Claude Guibal says even when migrants are not being allowed in, their presence is felt “psychologically and politically.”

“France is a country, like many countries in Europe, of a Christian culture,” said Guibal, a member of France’s center-right party, now known as Les Républicains. “And the south Mediterranean is a Muslim culture.”

“France is particularly sensitive to the protection of its identity,” he added.

Guibal, who has been mayor since 1989, noted that since 2015, support for the far-right National Front in the area has grown significantly.

Macron won the presidency last year by beating back the National Front, and he has adopted a tough approach to migration, while accepting criticism from within his own party, as a means to stave off future defections by voters. France will soon implement a new immigration law that will further crack down on economic migrants, expand how long French authorities can detain undocumented migrants, shorten asylum application deadlines and introduce new penalties for entering France illegally.

Macron said in a recent speech that the leaders of liberal Europe need to accept that the continent “cannot welcome everyone,” given what’s at stake. This, he said, was a “more responsible” approach than “playing on people’s fears.”

“I want France and its national cohesion to remain intact,” he said.

Although France is able to return migrants to Italy under the terms of a 1997 agreement, it has come under criticism for also returning unaccompanied minors, who have additional protections to seek asylum in countries other than the first one they reach. In February, a judge in Nice said at least 19 unaccompanied minors had been illegally turned away, and police were ordered to change their practices. But since then, migrants and aid organizations say French authorities sometimes falsely increase the ages of incoming migrants on their documents and still send them back to Italy.

One migrant, who in an interview presented a Senegalese identification document showing he was 17, was among the group turned away from France on a recent morning. “They always change my age,” Cissif Amadou said of French authorities, adding he had tried three times to enter France. “Each time they send me back.”

The border checks have also prompted questions about racial profiling. The issue is especially uncomfortable in France, which refuses to officially recognize race or ethnicity in reaction to the experience of World War II, when the French state singled out Jewish citizens for persecution.

French authorities who boarded the trains coming from Italy in recent days appeared to selectively ask passengers for identification. For Omatsheye Iyobosa, the message was clear. “They see we are black,” he said. “They ask other people for tickets. But for blacks, they ask for passports.”

And so, the migrants come walking back to Ventimiglia. At 8 a.m. Monday, 10 police officers had arrived along with a dumpster, and contractors hauled away donated blankets and garbage, removing everything in two hours. When they finished, it looked like nobody had ever lived below the overpass, and the Ventimiglia mayor predicted the camp had been cleared for good.

But by 4 p.m., people started drifting back. A volunteer brought games.

That night, some 30­ people would sleep under the bridge, but at the moment, Dinekagurgur Daarapoor, 25, from Sudan, still was not certain what he would do. He said he had arrived in Italy one month earlier, had already been stopped once trying to leave the country, and was ready to try again.

“Right now, I am under this bridge,” Daarapoor said. “But this is not where I want to be. For me, it is temporary.”

Stefano Pitrelli in Ventimiglia contributed to this report.

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