The Limits of European Solidarity: African Refugees Stuck in Limbo on the French-Italian Border

By in Ventimiglia, Italy

The coastal Italian town of Ventimiglia has long attracted vacationers to its gorgeous beaches and charming streets. But now that France has tightened its controls, the border town is quickly swelling with hundreds of North African refugees trying to make their way into France.

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Europe is no longer the "great dream" for Ali Kara. Kara is sitting outside an unadorned railway station in Ventimiglia, an Italian town on the border with France. He wants to cross the border and get to Nice, where his father lives. "I'm looking for freedom," he says. "I'm looking for work. That's all."

Kara has already been to France once, five years ago, but he was deported. He has spent the last few nights sleeping on the floor of the train station in Ventimiglia between the plastic chairs and alongside other Tunisians. In the gloomy hall, someone has put up a large picture showing the green mountains of the Riviera beneath a blue sky. Outside, the sun is warm. The sea and the sand-colored houses with the curved balcony railings are drawing the first vacationers of the season.

Europe can indeed be very beautiful -- but also merciless to those who are unwelcome. The Italian police estimate that 50 Tunisians reach Ventimiglia each day. They have made their way here after landing by boat in Lampedusa or Sicily. Most of them wear jeans, sneakers and dark jackets and are carrying little else.

Five weeks back, Kara boarded a boat packed with people in the Tunisian port city of Sfax, intending to leave his country, his life -- and, most of all, unemployment -- behind him. First came the refugee holding camp on the island of Lampedusa, then another in Crotone in southern Italy. Then -- like so many others -- he took off heading for Ventimiglia. Here, he is just a few kilometers from his goal. But, for now, his journey has come to an end.

The Limits of European Unity

The Italian government had promised to give the refugees temporary residence permits that they could use to legally travel to other EU member states. But now France, Germany and other countries have said they will not recognize the papers.

Here, in the border town of Ventimiglia, the pan-European spirit behind the EU has reached its limits.

Rome is now using the migrants as a tool to put pressure on neighboring states, and Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has even called European Union solidarity into question. Other EU governments are intensifying not only the war of words but also their border controls. There is suddenly little trace of a united Europe.

The sense of disappointment is palpable among the migrants stuck in Ventimiglia. The deputy head of the Italian border police in the town crosses his arms and says that the matter should be solved by "the governments rather than the Italian or French police."

Stefano Zerbone, who oversees a temporary refugee center set up here by the Red Cross, says the European Union "is always there when it comes to the euro, to business. But this is a European problem, not just an Italian one."

Some of the Tunisians here say that "Europe is beautiful." But they're outnumbered by the many others who say it was a "mistake."

France has been particularly vigilant about keeping the refugees out. Most of the Tunisians with the Italian permits want to make their way to friends or relatives living in Nice, Paris or Marseille. Late Tuesday, Francis Lamy, the prefect of the Alpes-Maritimes department in the far southeast corner of France, announced that French officials have reinforced their borders to the point that 400-500 officers are now patrolling the area on a daily basis "to prevent a wave of illegal immigration." He also showed up in person to pose for photographers at the Saint-Ludovic border station. Since mid--February, 2,800 Tunisians have been detained at the station, and 1,700 of them have been sent back into Italy.

The Dangerous Paths to a New Life

The border station doesn't house any officials. In fact, it is full of piles of building material and looks downright abandoned. The Schengen Agreement forbids systematic border controls among its 25 member states -- and the French are still complying with it. But they have increased random spot checks on the highways, and officers stationed at toll booths on certain stretches are looking into cars to check for suspected would-be immigrants. If they see people with dark skin, they pull them out of line. Controls on trains have also been increased.

Even with these checks, many immigrants are still trying to get in. Like Kara did four days ago, they hop on trains headed to France. When he arrived there, the police escorted him back to Italy. Some choose to take the more treacherous route over the mountains, whose steep cliffs have earned it the name "the path of death." Others hide in cars driven by smugglers charging €100 ($144) for carriage to Nice. Italian officials arrested 12 of them on Tuesday.

Still others simply walk into France along the coastal highways. Soroush and his 15-year-old brother are two of the latter. They are pausing for rest among the pine trees bordering the road. Fearing the police, they keep a close eye on the cars driving by. Soroush is from Afghanistan, where he learned English translating for the Americans. He says that after he was threatened by Islamists, his family scraped together its money and left. Whether by bus or taxi, on foot or horseback, they made it through Iran, Turkey, Greece and Italy all the way here. But, he adds, they will keep traveling until they arrive "somewhere where our life is safe." Resting his head on his brother's shoulder, Soroush says: "We are tired, angry and thirsty."

A Swelling Wave of Men and Worries

Soroush says that they have to go now, that they're in a hurry. Another 1,500 meters (0.9 miles) down the road -- through two tunnels and past a restaurant -- lies the French border. And past it lies the town of Menton, where the streets are lined with orange and palm trees, where the locals go jogging along the promenade, where families take walks with their children.

Many more immigrants are likely to come, particularly from North Africa. New boats full of immigrants arrive in Lampedusa almost every day. On Wednesday, two would-be immigrants drowned after their ship ran aground off the island of Pantelleria. Just last week, an entire boat full of refugees capsized.

Most of the Tunisians say that they know what to expect. They know that the road to France will be dangerous and exhausting. Since the Italian residency permits give them some degree of hope, they are waiting things out in Ventimiglia.

There are now already 300 of them waiting here for the controversial papers that often take two weeks to process, and every day brings more. Indeed, the Red Cross fears that the number of migrants in Ventimiglia could significantly increase. "We are very worried," says Tommaso Della Longa, a spokesman for the organization.

Temporary lodging has already been found in an old fire station four kilometers outside the city. There, 150 migrants eat in the evening and sleep at night. The food is said to be very good. This evening, the menu includes cordon bleu and minestrone. Kara is already standing in line outside the building. The doors will open in half an hour. "We have to wait again. That's all," he says. "C'est la vie."

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The Schengen Agreement
In 1985, the Schengen Agreement paved the way for taking down barriers at border controls between Germany, France and the three Benelux countries -- Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. At the same time, it obligated these countries to better protect their external borders.

Signed near the town of Schengen in Luxembourg, it would take until 1995 for the treaty to bring down border gates for good.

Today 25 countries have signed on to the agreement. Even non-European Union members Norway, Iceland and Switzerland are within the Schengen Area. Bulgaria and Romania would also like to join, but have so far failed to meet the requirements. Schengen membership forbids systematic border controls. While random checks are allowed, anyone with the correct identification will still be allowed to freely cross borders within the area. Under current rules, Exceptions are permitted only when countries feel their domestic security is threatened. France made use of this rule during the NATO summit in 2009 to conduct controls along the German border to prevent violent demonstrators from accessing the event. Major state visits, high-level meetings among politicians and large sporting events have also prompted temporary border controls in some nations.

But it is not just EU citizens who have enjoyed unprecedented freedom of travel in Europe since the Schengen Agreement was signed. Citizens of other countries with a valid Schengen visa also profit. But if their visa expires, they are required to leave.

More than 400 million people live inside the Schengen zone, which has land borders measuring more than 7,700 kilometers (4,784 miles) in length and sea coast of some 42,700 kilometers. Rules of the agreement are found in the Schengen Borders Code, which names the conditions under which countries can reinstate border controls. Both Italy and France have recently done so in reaction to the flood of refugees coming from northern Africa following political uprisings there.

Under Article 23 of the Schengen Borders Code, a member can reintroduce controls at inner EU borders "in the event of a serious threat to public order or national security" for a limited time period of 30 days or as long as the threat continues. These security measures must remain in accordance with the code, though. Article 24 requires countries that feel this may be necessary to inform the European Commission and other member states of their reasons for doing so.


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