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Migrants Huddle in Riviera, Awaiting Chance to Cross Border


Many people attempting to cross from Italy into France come from sub-Saharan African countries, including Eritrea and Sudan.

As a winter wind whips through the underpass and the sound of vehicles thunders above, residents of this makeshift camp pull blankets close to their faces, trying to ward off the cold.

The underpass is in Ventimiglia, a picturesque town in the Italian Riviera that has become a launching point for African and South Asian migrants hoping to cross into France and begin new lives.

The Italian Riviera, like its French counterpart, is known for its resorts, glamour and beauty. But away from the tourists, hundreds willingly endure grim conditions and risk their lives, making repeated attempts to cross the border.

Hailing from mostly sub-Saharan African countries, including Sudan and Eritrea — though Afghans are also among the array of nationalities present — many migrants have spent months in Ventimiglia, located 8 kilometers from the French frontier.

It is thought that a couple of hundred people sleep in the rough beneath the underpass by the Roya river.

Migrants and refugees have dinner near the underpass in Ventimiglia, Italy. Many wait until nightfall to attempt their crossing in France.
Migrants and refugees have dinner near the underpass in Ventimiglia, Italy. Many wait until nightfall to attempt their crossing in France.

"The situation here is so bad," said Salah Baker Alam, who comes from Sudan's Darfur region. "We have blankets, but they don't stop the cold getting through. We don't want to stay here, but we're waiting to get into France."

The 23-year-old has been living beneath the underpass for a month, harboring dreams of reaching Great Britain.

Around 450 others live an hour's walk from the town in a Red Cross camp, which was full in the wake of a recent flood. The camp is shunned by Alam, who believes that if he registers there, he will be dragged into an asylum system that makes leaving all the more difficult.

He was fingerprinted on arrival in Italy, not knowing that would hinder his efforts to leave Italy due to the Dublin regulations, which require refugees and migrants to claim asylum in their first country of arrival in the European Union.

"People spend a long time in the camps here, and even if they get documents there's no jobs," he said of Italy, where unemployment is more than 11 percent.

WATCH: Refugees, Migrants Attempt to Escape Italy on Pass of Death

Refugees, Migrants Attempt to Escape Italy on Pass of Death
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Risking death

In seeking a better life, those like Alam risk death.

There are numerous ways of trying to cross the border, but all are heavily guarded by French police — a presence that swelled in 2015 as part of a broader reaction to the sharp increase of people making the desperate journey across the Mediterranean.

Salah Baker Alam, from Darfur in Sudan, is seen in Ventimiglia, Italy. Alam has tried unsuccessfully to cross into France five times, but says he will not give up.
Salah Baker Alam, from Darfur in Sudan, is seen in Ventimiglia, Italy. Alam has tried unsuccessfully to cross into France five times, but says he will not give up.

Some take the train from Ventimiglia into France, hoping to avoid the authorities, who sweep through the carriages and wait outside stations. The failure rate is high, but it's the safest option.

Others go by foot across the natural border formed by the Alps, including the mountainous route dubbed the "Pass of Death." According to one report, at least 12 refugees or migrants have died since September 2016 attempting to cross the border or around Ventimiglia itself, though the figure could be far higher.

"I tried by train and was caught, and I tried by foot and was caught," said Iessa Abdel Haleim, also from Sudan.

"By mountain, it's very difficult and you get very tired. When you've climbed three mountains it's hard to run past a policeman."

If they're lucky, those caught are made to walk the two-hour journey back to Ventimiglia.

The unlucky ones are herded onto buses and driven back south to the Italian city of Taranto, home to a center for processing asylum claims — and more than 1,100 kilometers away from the border they so desperately wish to cross.

Europe's role

The Italian government's recent efforts to reduce new arrivals by giving money to those wielding power in Libya seem to have worked. Last month, 2,207 migrants arrived, nearly a quarter of the number that arrived in December 2016.

Still, the number of migrants hiding in Ventimiglia, waiting for their moment to cross the border, has increased since the end of 2015.

Father Rito Julio Alvarez, a local priest, had to stop housing refugees and migrants in his church Ventimiglia, Italy, after he received threatening letters.
Father Rito Julio Alvarez, a local priest, had to stop housing refugees and migrants in his church Ventimiglia, Italy, after he received threatening letters.

It is a situation that makes Rito Julio Alvarez shake his head in dismay. As priest of a church directly opposite the underpass, he offered sanctuary to hundreds of migrants before anonymous letters threatening to burn down the church — and its new residents —forced him to step back and offer help in other ways.

Alvarez sees what is happening in Ventimiglia as not just the responsibility of Italy or France, but the wider European community.

"It makes me reflect on how Europe has always wanted to play the role of the teacher in human rights issues, waving the human rights flag around the world, often enforcing these on others [countries]," he said. "And today, while it could practice what it preaches, unfortunately it does even worse."

For now, the game of cat and mouse along this stretch of the border continues unabated.

So far Alam, who dreams of going to Oxford University, has made five attempts to cross.

And as he prepares to join those heading out once again into the night, there is little sign he will relent in his efforts.

"It's difficult," he said, "but I will try again and again."

In Photos: The Fight to Escape Italy

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