Refugees on the Pass of Death between Italy and France

July 26, 2017

On the path with young Eritrean refugees hiking from Italy to France along the Cote D’Azure.

Grimaldi, Italy – The Carabinieri station chief exits the patrol car, lights a cigar and gazes over the little stone wall at the winding coastline below. It’s sunset and the hilltop hamlet just 1.5km from the French border is famed for its vistas. It’s also where many refugees begin a perilous hike across the “Pass of Death” to cross the mountainous border into France.

“We have a good relationship with people from Sudan, Chad, Senegal,” says the chief. “They are good people. We never have to intervene. We’ve never seen crime, nothing.”

His deputy strolls to the wall, snapping pictures on his iPhone of the little horseshoe bays and twinkling lights of Cote D’Azure – the French Riviera – as the sky turns a soft shade of purple. Nearby, five Sudanese refugees wash themselves and fill bottles from a stone sink before disappearing up the path.

“If I were them and I had nothing left, I’d do the same,” he says shrugging.

Church-funded charity Caritas – which also runs a food and clothing centre 8km away in the Italian town of Ventimiglia – estimates there are approximately 700 refugees around the town. Four hundred stay in the Red Cross centre on its outskirts and around 300 sleep rough on the banks of the Roya River or outside the train station.

Where the journey begins

Crossing the border has become almost impossible, with French police roadblocks running all the way to Breil-sur-Roya, 24km away. With France’s state of emergency declared after the Charlie Hebdo attack on January 7, 2015, anti-terror protocols legally permit searches and spot-checks up to 20km inside Italy, as well as deportations back across the border.

“Police are equipped with infrared binoculars to be able to see in the dark, a drone and a helicopter. There are guards, there are mobile gendarmes …” says French refugee rights activist Cedric Herrou who has helped many seeking French asylum complete their journey.

“When they get arrested at the Police Aux Frontieres (PAF) – [outposts] established because of the emergency state … they deport them back to Italy as if they didn’t enter France,” Herrou tells Al Jazeera.

As the sun sets and the sky darkens, the Italian Carabinieri leave. Up the pathway, the refugees huddle in the ruins of a farmhouse opposite a motorway overpass which straddles a deep valley.

Suddenly, three rush down and scramble across a wire fence, stepping out into the traffic. A truck rushes past, blasting its horn and bathing their silhouettes in light. They make their way slowly along the concrete lane, disappearing into the mouth of a tunnel at the opposite end.

“France, Inshallah,” whispers one of the group looking on. Those from Francophone countries like Mali and Chad often seek asylum in France. Others, like the Eritreans, dream of reaching England.

Getting through the night

The night passes slowly and no one else wants to try the passage. A group of 12 young Eritreans arrive, bedding down in a tangle of limbs to wait for first light.

In the morning, hard light spills onto the cramped bodies. The farmhouse is a wreck without a roof. The stench of faeces-smeared tissues and urine hangs heavy. Trappings of a life in motion litter the floor – discarded shoes, clothes, emergency blankets, laminated admission cards for the Red Cross centre.

“Eritrea is no good,” says Awate*, an 18-year-old Eritrean from Asmara who’s been travelling for a year.

“They put me in prison underground for five months … You can’t see, you can’t stand, can’t sit down. No light,” he says making rings around his eyes with his fingers and squinting upwards. The hand-poked tattoo on his forearm reads ‘I love you mummy’ in Tigrinya.

“All of us – prison – Eritrea. Everybody … and babies,” he says pointing to three boys aged 12, 13 and 15. Like almost all young Eritreans, Awate was taken from school to the SAWA military academy at age 15.

“The only work in Eritrea is to be a soldier. Nothing else,” he says.

After he escaped SAWA, the government took his mother and father as prisoners, demanding 50,000 Eritrean nakfa (roughly $3,259) for their release. With one month’s salary being roughly 700 nafka (about $45), he hopes to reach England and work to save up enough money.

Hiding in plain sight

The boys exit the farmhouse. The heat is dry and dusty, the sun pounding under a hum of cicadas. They jog the tiny path in a tight line, ducking under an olive grove as a helicopter sweeps the opposite valley.

“This is not good for my head,” says Birhan, 24, also from Asmara. He wears a wooden cross and nervously thumbs a rosary. “I try five times before … Every time, French police catch me and send me back.”

The path gets steeper. They sweat and stumble, grappling for grip over exposed roots and cleaving back thorny branches blocking the way. One Eritrean has shoes without laces. Crude arrows and red footprint daubed on rocks guide the way as paths crisscross and evaporate into dead ends.

The group rest under the shade of a pine tree near the summit. Yachts from Cannes and Monaco drift lazily across the endless blue horizon. Birhan looks at the peak and makes the sign of the cross. He is an Orthodox Christian and his journey through Libya saw many like him killed and tortured.

“They burn [us] with plastic,” he says holding a lighter under the cap of a water bottle. “For many friends, it happens like this.” Then, he mimes the skin being ripped from his chest, his heart removed and his arms spread into a crucifix.

“The language of England is easy for me. I’ll study business and economics at school … I want to be a professor … It’s not [about] money … I want to go to school,” he says.

One of the young boys plays Eritrean music on his phone. The group sings in hushed voices. Awate explains the lyrics. It’s a love song about a young man taken to the military academy by the government while the love of his life is pregnant.

“It says there may be other people along the road, but one day we will meet in another body, or up there,” he says pointing towards the sky. “This is life for us in Eritrea.”

To the top and back down

They reach the summit in silence, following the border fence to a small hole. A sign reading “hope” is nailed above it. Coloured ribbons wrapped by refugees who have made the climb dot the rusted wire. A few steps further is France. In a second, they’ve crossed the border, vanishing into the thick brush beyond.

On the way down, two Sudanese, a Syrian and a Libyan man sporting a ponytail pass by covered in sweat. On the roadside border below, police vans are deporting a group back to the Red Cross centre across the border in Taranto, Italy. Another van arrives, dumping a group of Sudanese, who walk back to the squalid riverbank in Ventimiglia.

“The most desperate situation is the one of the people on the riverbanks,” says Colombian priest Rito Alvarez who has served Ventimiglia’s parish for over two decades.

“They sleep there, they do their physical needs, they wash themselves with river water, they even drink it. They are the ones who are really abandoned to the mercy of God.”

His church sits opposite the river. Last year, he opened its doors as a shelter for women and child refugees and is reliant entirely on diocese donations. Facing an increasing pressure from local residents and the city prefecture, his shelter is scheduled to be closed. Women and children will be moved to the Red Cross centre outside town which is currently being enlarged to hold an extra 160 people.

Ritto remains highly critical of this move to shuffle refugees from the public eye and to house both men and women together in cramped conditions.

Enrico Loculano, the city’s mayor defends this action, saying “It is the only real way to alleviate the daily pressure in Ventimiglia.”

“Either we reduce the pressure on the city or we will reach a situation which we will have thousands of people and we won’t be able to manage them …” he explains. “By the end of the summer, we will reach 1,000 people.”

The mayor is also facing pressure from a local population fearful of the influx of homeless sub-Saharan African men. He also shows deep frustration at France’s border management and the European Union for isolating Ventimiglia as a refugee frontier.

“The responsibilities belong to the EU, but there is no political sharing of problems and choices. There is solidarity only on paper.”

Hoping for the best

The next morning on the riverbank, the Eritrean boys are nowhere to be seen. Hundreds of Sudanese cling to shaded spots under bridges, slumbering on cardboard mattresses among the litter – discarded bottles and heaped industrial slag. Several wash nude in the river.

Metres away, locals sip espresso under cafe parasols and tourists peruse market stalls of gift-wrapped cheese and white table linen. The Libyan with the ponytail walks past. He makes a handcuffed gesture, shaking his head and pointing up to the mountains. He was arrested immediately upon reaching Menton, the French Riviera town across the fence.

“Impossible,” he mutters.

Two days later, an audio message comes through. It’s Birhan. Arrested in Menton, he is now in Turin planning to hike to Switzerland. An hour later, Awate calls. He’s been deported to Taranto but is already on his way back to Ventimiglia to try again.

The sound is scratchy and distant, high winds lashing at the receiver. “It’s no problem, my friend,” he says in a distant voice. “This is life … One day, Inshallah.” The phone cuts off. An audio message pings five minutes later, the wind stronger and the sound of his voice even fainter and more distant.

“England, I love you.”