The deadly border politics of Ventimiglia

As Macron and Salvini tussle over the French/Italian border Zad El Bacha and Oliver Eagleton report on the migrants organising on the frontlines

April 24, 2019 · 7 min read
Fotomovimiento / Flickr

Ventimiglia is a scenic harbour town in northern Italy, located four miles from the French riviera. As well as being a major tourist destination, replete with classical ruins and a Romanesque cathedral, it has become a vital crossing point for migrants attempting to enter France. The influx began during the Arab Spring, with reams of Libyan and Tunisian refugees arriving in the coastal city after a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. Since then, the number of migrants passing through Ventimiglia each year has grown to almost 23,000, most of whom are fleeing war and poverty in North Africa.

Ventimiglia’s migrant population usually fluctuates between 600 and 800, most of whom are young men and unaccompanied minors. Following their arrival, formal immigration checks along the French-Italian border which were removed under the Schengen agreement have been reinstated. Italian riot police have been deployed to block their passage, while the French government has placed armoured vehicles along its southern frontier. The majority of migrants in Ventimiglia report experiencing violence and discrimination at the hands of these border forces, along with unsanitary living conditions and scant access to medical treatment. An Oxfam report published last June describes how French police regularly rob and abuse migrants attempting to enter Nice, sometimes cutting off the soles of children’s shoes before sending them back to Italy.

In the summer of 2015, about 200 migrants sought to push back against this treatment by establishing a camp in the border town of Balzi Rossi. They were joined by members of the No Borders Network, an international collective which seeks to combat restrictions on free movement. Migrants and activists lived together in this entirely self-organised community, equipped with clean water, an efficient plumbing system, electricity and internet. The camp was run through nightly assemblies in which residents could vote on managerial and organisational issues. Meals were cooked in a communal kitchen, volunteers took turns to care for minors, and a vibrant cultural life was created through regular artistic performances, youth groups and film screenings.  

The Balzi Rossi network allowed migrants to find safer transport routes to France, while communication with French pro-migrant campaigners allowed them to access transport, protection and accommodation once they arrived. Increased cooperation with local residents made it harder for authorities to harass migrants, as activists undertook ‘copwatching’ operations to monitor the actions of police. Meanwhile, the Balzi Rossi camp’s mass demonstrations in honour of migrants killed by security services set a precedent which spread to Bologna, Milan and Brescia, strengthening demands for an independent inquiry into police brutality.

This anti-border movement galvanised people from across Italy to travel to Ventimiglia and lend support. Lawyers turned out to advise migrants on their rights and suggest strategies of resistance. Discussion groups were convened to address issues ranging from EU economic policy to the Ventimiglian train network, blending structural analysis with realpolitikal planning. Such forums were also used to organise direct actions against the closed border, which was frequently beset by peaceful protests. In August 2015, over 100 migrants boarded the Ventimiglia-Nice train in a gesture of defiance against the border guards. Their Balzi Rossi allies also launched a boycott of exploitative people traffickers, who were consequently forced to drop the exorbitant prices which they had been charging for cross-border transit an institute an affordable rate.

The growing power of the migrant population alarmed Italian authorities, who decided to destroy the camp in late 2015 after an initial campaign of intimidation failed to remove the residents. On September 30, 200 policemen in anti-riot gear dismantled the camp infrastructure with bulldozers and detained scores of people, forcing the remaining migrants to live on the streets or join the city’s overcrowded Red Cross facility.

An extensive police presence inside the Red Cross camp effectively prevents political activity, as assemblies and solidarity events are broken up. Volunteers attempting to deliver aid to residents have been arrested and tear-gassed, causing local pro-migrant groups to hide food in bushes throughout the town. The requirement that migrants provide fingerprints upon entry to the Red Cross camp also deters a large number of migrants from taking up residence, for fear that any formal registration with Italian authorities will leave them trapped inside the country (in line with the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which gives member states the right to deport migrants back to their first point of entry to the EU). This caused hundreds of former Balzi Rossi residents to meet in public spaces or community centres during 2016-17. Yet, since the election of the far-right Salvini government, their ability to gather anywhere without persecution has been curtailed.

Over the past year, activists have reported a surge in racial profiling by Ventimiglian police. Ethnic minorities are frequently stopped on the street and asked to provide proof of citizenship or asylum status. If they cannot do so, they are either sent directly to the Red Cross camp or to detention centres in southern Italy. This operation is known as allegerimento (‘lightening’) and is perceived by many on the ground as an indiscriminate attempt to cleanse Ventimiglia of non-white people: a fear confirmed by ethnic minority citizens who report being pressured to join the camp despite their legal right to live and work in the city. The months following Salvini’s election have also seen a spike in the number of arbitrary arrests, charges and beatings handed down to anyone suspected of assisting or collaborating with migrants. At the same time, the re-empowerment of people traffickers has prompted migrants to undertake perilous and extortionate cross-border journeys – hiking along mountain trails, hiding in the backs of lorries or in the electrical compartments of trains. These dangerous attempts to enter France have claimed at least 22 lives since the end of 2016.

While Macron and Salvini have exchanged sharp words over the EU’s approach to immigration (with the former depicted as an open-door globalist and the latter as a closed-border populist), they share a position on the migrants passing through Ventimiglia. The French president has refused to set up processing centres for asylum seekers on the border, preferring to use military force against people fleeing conflict and persecution. In the same vein, his Italian counterpart has harnessed the repressive powers of the state to ensure that these people are hounded and dehumanised until they return to their homelands. Macron leans on the Dublin Regulation to push back migrants just as Salvini mobilises his security services to deport them. Last month, an agreement was signed by the two countries which will enhance cooperation between their border forces, removing any friction from their joint approach to migrants. This French-Italian accord on the Ventimiglian crisis makes clear that, when it comes to brown people fleeing Western-made wars, the policies of neofascism and neoliberalism are akin: deter them, endanger them, deport them.  

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