Stories from Ventimiglia (2): A glimmers of hope

Border towns all over the world have a special and unique atmosphere and this is definitely true of Ventimiglia, a small town on the Italian Riviera, situated 20 miles from France. Formerly, a sleepy outpost for French holiday-makers, in recent years Ventimiglia has become the main crossing point for refugees and migrants hoping to settle in France or the UK. As numbers increased dramatically last summer, tensions in the town have begun to bubble to surface and volunteers and activists are becoming lightning rods for discontent for the prefecture.

The Red Cross camp in Ventimiglia. By Peggy Whitfield.

I met with Livio, a member of the Progetto 20k association, which has been operating in Ventimiglia since summer of last year. He explained that the majority of people on the move in Ventimiglia travel up from the south of Italy to try to cross into France; some because they speak French, others because they have family in France, or others because of poor treatment by the Italian authorities. Some want to stay in Italy but the only option to claim asylum in Ventimiglia is to go to the Red Cross camp, give your fingerprints and make your claim inside the site. This is completely illegal under European asylum law and as asylum claims in Italy can take up to two years to process, many people are reluctant to stay in the camp — which is 4 km from the town centre, situated under a motorway and basically consists of a load of containers dumped into the middle of a dusty piece of land.

A doctor visits a few times a week, otherwise there are no facilities whatsoever; no legal support, no recreational activities, no communal buildings, no Italian lessons, nothing at all. The long walk into town means that elderly men or men with disabilities cannot access any facilities in Ventimiglia town centre, as there is no transport to take them from the camp to the town and it’s too far to walk. This explains why many people want to avoid living there at all costs and have to sleep rough, with “The Hobbit” bar as the main lifeline for refugees and migrants in Ventimiglia.

I wanted to see where the majority of refugees and migrants slept in Ventimiglia, so Livio took me to the outskirts of the town where the church of Chiesa delle Gianchette which is a well-run shelter for women and minors. My brief visit revealed a well-run place of respite, with children’s paintings on the walls and Nigerian and Ethiopian women pitching in and cooking pizza and pasta for residents. But space here is limited and single adult men cannot stay. I was also told privately by several activists unconnected to the church that the it is limited to what they can do for men as the municipality threatens them with closure if it objects to the projects it runs.

Livio explained that intimidation from the police and municipality against associations, activists and volunteers is not a new thing. In the summer of 2016, more than 60 activists and volunteers, including five members of Progetto20k, were expelled from the town for up to five years for trying to help migrants and refugees by distributing food and clothing. The association has now set up its base in a village outside of the town to mitigate this if it happens in future — they are wise to be careful as several independent activists have reported being followed by police as they go about their daily business.

As we walked down the river, opposite the church, it soon became clear how vital it is that volunteers and associations should be allowed to do their work properly, as I saw at least 100 male migrants and refugees forced to sleep on open scrubland and in bushes as the municipality recently chopped down all the trees along the riverbank, removing what little shelter and privacy these men and boys had. There are no tents here, no sleeping bags, no washing facilities, absolutely nothing at all for these men. Their basic needs are met by “The Hobbit” Bar and Progetto 20K.

Livio is hopeful that despite the restrictions of working in Ventimiglia, they can develop their project further by cooking and distributing food, giving material support such as clothes and hygiene packs, monitoring police conduct towards refugees and migrants trying to cross the border into France, organising a Ramadan celebration and providing legal information. But this must be done carefully as a few days before I arrived in Ventimiglia, two French volunteers and one British volunteer were arrested and fined 200 euro each for distributing food in the town. This law was passed by the municipality on spurious ‘hygiene’ reasons. This seems to be a tactic that is increasingly employed across Italy and the Balkans to try and shut down volunteer food distribution and simply means that malnourished people often go hungry.

The rule in Italy can be challenged legally — indeed, a former incarnation of this law was successfully demolished in front of a judge, only to be resurrected with slight changes — but the Italian legal system is slow, so nobody knows how long it will take to get it overturned. There are glimmers of hope things may be changing on this front though; on the day that I left Ventimiglia, the Iocal Police Federation publicly stated that they did not want to fine people for feeding hungry human beings, tactically shifting the responsibility back to the municipality who passed the law in the first place.

Everyone working with people on the move in Ventimiglia expects numbers of people passing through to increase this summer; in the wake of the closure of the Balkan route and the EU/Turkey deal people are increasingly forced to travel from Libya into Italy and the numbers of documented arrivals in Sicily reflect this. More support is needed to help people arriving in Italy after truly horrendous journeys.

Some locals and the municipality fear that visible migrant and refugee populations within the town will deter tourism and that volunteers groups operating in Ventimiglia act as pull factors. A young Sudanese man I spoke to disagreed with this: “The people will keep coming because there is no choice. The people who help us offer us dignity and respect. Even if they weren’t here, we still have to move forward, but at least this helps us feel human.”

(By Peggy Whitfield)

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Daily news digests from the field, mainly for volunteers and refugees on the route, but also for journalists and other parties.