“Italy’s Western Gateway”: this is one of the names under which Ventimiglia is known. An open door to the French Riviera, with which Ventimiglia shares bonds of geographical proximity and daily cultural, economic, and social relations.
A gateway, not a border, at least until France suspended the free-movement treaties that are part of the Schengen acquis. Since then, Ventimiglia has become a bottleneck where many migrants pile up: the ones who consider our country only as an intermediate stage in their journey towards their final destination across the border.
«More than 20,000 people travelled through Ventimiglia last year» Paola - a member of the local Focolare community – tells me «It is like a second Ventimiglia, considering that our current population is around 24,000. And since the beginning of 2017, about 18,000 people have already travelled through our town!».
Paola, a teacher, has been a witness to this situation from the very beginning: «When all this started, I used to have a small teaching job at the Diocesan Seminary. It was Lent, between February and March 2015, and seminarians had just started a meal distribution service for the homeless who lived near the train station. As the days went by, however, they realized that the homeless were multiplying and also…changing colour!».
As a matter of fact, migrants were coming to Ventimiglia after having landed on our shores: they were determined not to stop, but cross the border with France in order to reach other European countries.
«This is how this ongoing “emergency” started. At the beginning, we used to hand out sandwiches in the street with other local volunteer organizations, then sandwiches turned into pots!».
They work as volunteers in collaboration with the diocesan Caritas, but each association is self-funded when it comes to organizing their meal preparation shift: «We are really few and far between here. So we immediately got in touch with our friends in Menton, on the other side of the border. Not only did the Focolare community of the Maritime Alps work with us during our shifts, but they also supported us financially thanks to the funds they collected during the charity sale that takes place during the Monaco Grand Prix, when the prince grants association the opportunity to sell food and other items for charity purposes».
Paola summarizes the migrant emergency situation for my benefit. Her story is passionate, albeit sobering: «In June 2015, the Red Cross camp next to the station was set up. Access was restricted to that area, but the people in our team who were HACCP-certified were able to get in and helped out in different ways».
In the meantime, next to this “official” camp, an informal one was set up in the summer of 2015 in the Balzi Rossi pine woods, right at the border with France.
«Back then, several migrants would get here without being identified; hotspots did not exist yet. Instead, in the Red Cross-run camp, identification was mandatory. That is why many would rather camp out there, to try and cross the border as soon as possible».
Then one day, on October 4, 2015, the Balzi Rossi camp was dismantled and emptied out.
«Quite brutally, I might add. And then the river scenario emerged ».
The river Paola is referring to is the Roya, which rises in French territory, in the mountain called Col de Tende, and flows into the sea in Ventimiglia, separating the downtown area from the Marina di San Giuseppe (St Joseph’s seacost) neighborhood.
«The Red Cross camp was operational until May 2016. That is until the Italian Interior Minister, Mr. Alfano, declared that the emergency was over, commenting that the migrants still left at the camp were just 50. The truth, however, was that the majority was camped by the river. Hence, in about ten days, we found ourselves with more than a thousand people in town».
An unbearable situation, also considering that, since 2015, a municipal order was in place that banned the distribution of food and essential goods to migrants, with criminal penalties and fines around Euro 300 in case of violations.
«And there were many! As well as moments of tension, road blocks… Until Caritas stepped in to mediate with the local authorities. The compromise solution was: move them all to a private location, and we will not kick them out of there. And this is how the reception initiatives around the Church of St. Anthony, in the Gianchette neighborhood, started».
A church by day, a shelter by night.
«There was also the possibility for people to spend the night in the Municipal soccer stadium, while families with children and frail individuals found shelter in the church: pews were moved out, blankets were distributed and, the next day, everything was cleaned out».
In mid-July 2016, the Red Cross camp was reopened again, in a different location out of town, at about 5 km from the town center. There was no mandatory identification in this camp, but it was set up as a men-only camp: women and children were still staying at the Gianchette location.
«Then, from April until the end of June 2017, an endless flow of minors started coming here; they were mostly staying by the river Roya. So, the Prefect asked the Red Cross to open a new section just for them and the Children’s Ombudsman, who came here in person, approved this request. But mandatory identification was reintroduced and, in the last few weeks, the closure of the camp at St. Anthony at the Gianchette was also discussed. There are daily round-ups by the river. Four hundred migrants were apprehended and loaded on buses heading to Taranto (Southern Italy); but after a few days, they were back».
Paola explains that these people do not want to stay in Italy but cross over to France to reach other countries and join their friends and family, no matter what: «The authorities do not want this situation to become chronic here in Ventimiglia… but this has already happened because this is where the border is located and this is where people will try to cross through again and again. There are people who have attempted to cross the border ten times before they succeeded. This is the only place where they can do that. They often walk all night long without succeeding and, at around eleven or twelve, you can see them coming back exhausted. They sleep all day and, in the evening, at around 11 p.m., they go for it once again…».
The border between France and Italy is policed day and night, and checks often apply also to Italian and French commuters traveling by train: «I come from Naples and moved here with my husband so that our kids could go to school in France; so, they take the train every morning. There has never been any problem but, during the last three months, checks have become more frequent. A few days ago, one of my kids’ friends from school, who is a French national but of African descent, - just a kid – he was pretending he was a migrant, with his hoodie pulled over his head, sitting on the floor. He was stopped and searched by the police! They let him go only thanks to his friends, who witnessed that he went to school with them… This is the climate we are living in right now».
During the last few days, in Ventimiglia, 600-650 people have traveled through town and Caritas, which is just about to collapse, has decided to only distribute breakfasts.
«Unfortunately, we must admit that what we are doing here is just providing basic aid. But they don’t need clothes or a pair of shoes. They need to go where they want to and exercise their human freedom of self-determination that should apply to all human beings».
Perhaps one solution could be to set up a transit camp, Paola suggests: «Just like the Red Cross camp has been for a while. A place where migrants, during their journey, can stop, eat, wash, and change clothes. A place where they can receive medical care, necessary legal assistance, and then, “move on”, continue their journey in a way that is worthy of a human being».
Paola tells me about many experiences, made of endless rien du tout, as she put it, “nothing”: «In this situation, what we are trying to do is put the person at the center. For example, when we cooked meals we tried to prepare African or Arab recipes with cous-cous and rice. We learned to mix spices according to their taste, to prepare dishes based on their tradition. We did so to make them feel welcomed and at home. How much did that cost us? Nothing!»
Rien du tout, nothing, thanks to which the faces of these travelers light up, through gestures that make them feel human again: «One day we noticed a Syrian woman who washed every time she showed up at Caritas, but kept wearing the same clothes. She used to wear long robes, tunic-style, with pants underneath. I remember that she kept digging in the pile of clothes, and then she would always leave empty-handed. Until we realized what her problem was and we asked our Moroccan friends if they had clothes they could donate that were similar in style to what she was wearing. At long last, she changed clothes and was all happy again!».
Listening to Paola’s rien du tout, a quotation by Italo Calvino, a wise man from this local area, came to my mind: “What makes us human goes only as far as love goes; it has no boundaries, other than what we give it.” A truth we should remember whenever we find ourselves in contact with all this pain.