During the Winter vacations of 2015, I visited the refugee camp of Ventimiglia, at the French-Italian border, with members of a French NGO. This report was published in the Spring 2016 edition of Der Parvenu. 

« In Afghanistan, we had to hide in the car as we drove past Taliban positions, in order to avoid detection”, explains Cécile, a NGO member. She’s almost 80, and has participated in humanitarian action in Afghanistan, in the Balkans, in Romania, Madagascar or Haiti. She has seen war, treated patients with bullet and shrapnel wounds. But today, she’s needed at the French-Italian border. Her Jeep has seen bombed roads; it’s now driving in direction of Ventimiglia, a small Italian border- and coastal town where she’ll deliver hundreds of kilos of food and clothing to the Italian Red Cross. It will help the 200 migrants quartered in a camp directed by the Red Cross with the help of local police and administration.

During summer, there was a high in migrant arrivals. Many hundred people lived in rack shack, makeshift camps near the border. But French and Italian police raided and evacuated the camps by the end of September, amidst the NGO’s outcry. The border is now sealed shut for the migrants, as every day 50 are stopped by French police. A Red Cross member even tells us that policemen arrest minors, arguing that those who have no passport can’t prove they’re not 18 (age for which it’s legal to be stopped at a border). If true, this would be a clear violation of European law, as minors are allowed to travel through Europe without harm.

Winter’s coming, so there’s less and less migrants arriving. The Red Cross can thus organize the camp in Ventimiglia in an orderly way. The big orange and pink building has been donated by the RFI Rail Company, and sports showers, toilets, rooms with real beds… quite the opposite of what awaits migrants on the other side of the border. The Red Cross member is proud of the three daily meals the newcomers can get, and boasts the legal help they are offered in order to apply for asylum. Migrants spend the three mandatory waiting months on the beach or in the park, and don’t seem to be disturbing locals. Most of them only stay one or two weeks in Ventimiglia though, as they mostly seek asylum elsewhere in Europe. Then, they disappear, never to be seen again. A group of thirty or so wishes to stay here, because to the legal aid the Red Cross offers.

I met a group of fifteen or so Pakistani asylum seekers on the beach. They were anxious to obtain the refugee status: it enables them to legally bring their families to Italy. Aman Muqtar, a 50-year old man, tells us that he had received numerous death threats from the Taliban after he refused to join them. So he fled through Iran, Turkey and Greece before entering Italy. Many men in the group share his experience and have been threatened by Taliban. Aman leaves his wife and five children behind, in danger, which is why becoming the visa would probably save his family from Taliban retaliation. He’s now too old to work here, but he believes his children might find some work opportunities in Italy.

Imran, another migrant, is 25-year old young man. Having finished high-school, he couldn’t find a job in his Mandi Bahauddin hometown, in the Pakistani Sinjab. He fled bombings; his siblings are in Saudi Arabia. He speaks some English, and translated the other’s stories, but the communication was difficult nonetheless. But this didn’t stop us from exchanging some jokes- especially my awkward pronunciation of the Urdu town names made them laugh. The group remained optimistic throughout our conversation, which contrasts nicely with the pessimism displayed in European politics.

We parted shaking hands, laughing. I cannot stop from thinking that their courage and dynamism is a chance for our trembling Europe to seize: they help us remember that it is something special, an ideal well worth the pain.

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