Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Dangerous Borderlands: Human Rights for Displaced People on the French-Italian Border



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7 Minutes

Guest post by Alice Lucas and Marta Welander. Alice is the Senior Programme Officer at Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP). Alice holds an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London (UCL) and currently works to support refugees and displaced people in the UK. Marta is the Executive Director of Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP) and a visiting lecturer and doctoral researcher at the University of Westminster. Prior to founding RRDP in 2016, Marta worked as Deputy Director for a small international human rights and peacebuilding organisation. In this post they set out findings from a recent study of conditions in Ventimiglia.

While ‘hot-spots’ in Greece and Italy and the squalid make-shift camps in Northern France have received periods of international attention, the migratory transit point in the small Italian town of Ventimiglia on the French-Italian border seems to have been largely overlooked by media agencies and human rights groups, with the exception of a few noteworthy examples (see for example news coverage by Al-Jazeera, a blog post on Are You Syrious?, and a research study conducted by UNICEF and the REACH Initiative).  Recent research by Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP) highlights detrimental living conditions coupled with police violence and dangerous border crossings, creating a situation for displaced people characterised by chronic insecurity and extensive mental and physical health concerns. This post is a summary of findings of a study conducted from 21 to 24 August 2017, based on interviews with 150 refugees and displaced people in Ventimiglia through a semi-structured survey, conducted in Amharic, Arabic, English, Persian and Tirgrinya. The survey findings were corroborated through RRDP’s field observations and informal interviews with INGOs, NGOs and local charities and volunteers.

Bottle-neck scenario at the border

Located on the Italian Riviera in close proximity to the French border, Ventimiglia is a well-known transit point for refugees and displaced people trying to enter France. In July 2017, Caritas estimated that there were approximately 700 refugees in and around the town; 400 hosted in the Red Cross camp and 300 sleeping rough in unsanitary conditions on the river beds and under bridges. After the French declaration of a state of emergency and the closure of its borders in 2015, passage to France became more difficult, but has evidently not stopped displaced people from trying to cross. Instead, it has driven individuals to resort to increasingly dangerous mountain passes and motorways, putting themselves at the mercy of smugglers and traffickers.

Trapped in this bottle-neck scenario, hundreds of refugees and displaced people face an acute lack of clean drinking water or sanitation facilities and an alarming absence of safety and security. While the official Red Cross camp offers regular meals, basic shelter and access to water, its facilities are reportedly highly limited, with the camp being at maximum capacity at the time of RRDP’s visit. Meanwhile, hundreds of destitute refugees sleeping on the river bank, local beach or train station reported a lack of sufficient food, despite humanitarian agencies working tirelessly on the ground. Many suffered from mental and physical health problems, some of which they had developed during their journey through Libya and which were now exacerbated by the precarious living situation. The Italian authorities recently carried out numerous raids in Ventimiglia, demolishing informal encampments, with a major eviction of large parts of the river bed in June 2017 without providing any viable alternatives or guidance. Such actions, coupled with dispersals of refugees back to the south of Italy, appear to do little more than create a sustained and detrimental situation for refugees and displaced people in Ventimiglia.

Risk of Death and Injury

RRDP’s research findings reveal serious concerns relating to the risk of death and injury faced by refugees in Ventimiglia. By making the journey to France on trains more difficult, the closed border drives displaced people to take their chances via the so-called ‘Pass of Death’ through the mountains, by walking through motorway tunnels or by resorting to smugglers and traffickers.  When asked about the biggest risks faced by people passing through Ventimiglia, the vast majority of RRDP’s respondents cited dangers related to border-crossings as the biggest risk (74.8%). Alarmingly, a whole 42.9% of respondents knew of at least one refugee who had died in Italy or at the French border, where 70% of these respondents said the persons in question had died by falling down a cliff or mountain when trying to cross. Despite this, most respondents expressed determination to continue their attempts. One minor told RRDP: “I have nothing to lose. I would rather die than not try.

Police Violence and Detention

As has been the case across most of RRDP’s research locations, the situation for displaced people in Ventimiglia is also one characterised by police violence. At the time of the study, more than a third of respondents had experienced violence by Italian police. Nearly half (47.5%) of these said they had been subjected to verbal abuse, 33.9% had been exposed to tear gas, and 23.7% had experienced physical violence other than tear gas. Most of the police violence appears to have taken place during attempted border crossings. Worryingly, a larger proportion of respondents (53.1%) had experienced violence by French police at the border, with many describing their treatment as particularly brutal. A Sudanese 18-year old recounted his recent experience of violence by French police at the border: “My right shoulder was broken and my neck was injured by French police at the border. There was French army deporting people as well. In Ventimiglia, my nose was broken by Italian police at the train station. (…) I don’t feel safe in Italy at all”. There were also reports of humiliating acts perpetrated by police, where one respondent said police had thrown old apples at him.

The vast majority of respondents (73.8%) had been arrested or detained since arriving in Italy, including the majority of children interviewed. Most of the instances of detention seemed to have occurred during attempted border crossings between Italy and France, upon which individuals are held in a detention center close to the border, reportedly sometimes without drinking water and food for periods of 24 hours. One 14-year-old boy from Sudan explained: “The police beat me with a baton and they hit my legs to make us get down the mountain. Then they put me in jail for 24 hours without food, water or medical attention.”

Respondents explained that their detention usually meant they would have to walk several hours to get back to Ventimiglia after their release, while some were sent further afield so that they had to spend several days walking or riding trains back to Ventimiglia in the hope of trying to cross again. Removals to the city of Taranto, some 1,000 kilometres from Ventimiglia, were also commonplace, with 61.2% of respondents having experienced this once or several times. However, rather than discouraging people from continuing to try to cross the border, these removals and dispersals appear to do little more than exacerbate existing mental and physical health issues as they continue to attempt their onward journeys.

Illegal push-backs for unaccompanied minors

While the anti-terrorism laws in France have given broad-ranging search powers to authorities, including the ability to search up to 20 kilometers inside Italy and deport across the border, France nonetheless holds responsibility for the minors who arrive on French soil. Despite this, French police have allegedly sent minors back on trains from France to Ventimiglia, denying them their right to protection. Shockingly, 100% of the minors interviewed said they had experienced being forced back on the train from France to Ventimiglia, the majority of them describing the experience as ‘violent’.

In this context, French police at the Menton Garavan station – the first French stop on the train from Ventimiglia - were overheard providing minors with false or misleading information. For instance, one police officer told a minor that it doesn’t matter how old he is, he cannot stay in France irrespective of age. Police officers were similarly overheard telling a minor that individuals who are not European cannot be in France under any circumstances, and that if one wants to be in France, one must speak the French language. Such incidences are particularly worrying in light of the lack of alternatives available to displaced minors since the closure of the border, and the stark lack of access to information or legal advice on how to improve their situation. Moreover, it appears to represent a worrying disregard for international human rights law and the protection of the rights of the child, as well as a violation of European Directives.

The need for human rights-centred policy-making

In light of these research findings, urgent action needs to be taken in Ventimiglia in several respects. In the immediate term, the basic needs of refugees and displaced people must be supplied for. The living conditions are largely inadequate, with hundreds of displaced people living in complete destitution. The lack of access to clean drinking water and sanitation raises serious concerns, as does the striking absence of information and support services. Untreated physical and mental health problems are widespread, and despite the relentless work of charities and NGOs to address the situation, they are unable to meet the needs on the ground due to a lack of sufficient resources.

In the longer term, a sustainable and humane solution to the bottle-neck scenario in Ventimiglia needs to be found. Push-backs, dispersals and sustained state violence appear to do little to resolve the situation, in particular in the absence of viable alternatives, information and support structures. Desperate to get themselves out of their current situation, individuals resort to increasingly dangerous journeys, with some falling down cliffs and sustaining injuries, and widespread reports of deaths.  Others inevitably fall into the hands of smugglers and traffickers who are generally known to exploit refugees.  

In addition, the striking child protection failure unfolding at the border needs to be immediately addressed by both French and Italian sides without any further delay. The push-backs of unaccompanied minors from France to Italy must be called out and stopped, and actions should be taken to ensure that the rights of the child are upheld in accordance with international law and that adequate protection frameworks are put in place to protect vulnerable children.

In short, the health, safety and overall human rights of the displaced people arriving in Ventimiglia must be placed at the centre of policy making to ensure that the human rights of refugees and displaced people are upheld in Europe.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Lucas, A. and Welander, M. (2017) Dangerous Borderlands: Human Rights for Displaced People on the French-Italian Border. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/10/dangerous (Accessed [date]).

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