A new report by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) documents accusations from hundreds of migrants who told MSF they were forced back to Italy—often violently—by French police after attempting to seek safety in France or reunite with family in other European countries. The report draws from testimonies and data collected from 1,004 migrants assisted by MSF in Ventimiglia, a port city in northwestern Italy, between February and June 2023. Most migrants MSF spoke to had fled conflict or persecution in their home countries and survived dangerous journeys across northern Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, or eastern Europe before trying to cross from Italy to France.
According to MSF’s report, Denied Passage: The continuous struggle of people on the move pushed back and stranded at the Italian-French border, migrants and asylum seekers crossing the French-Italian border are systematically and indiscriminately returned to Italy without consideration of individual circumstances or vulnerabilities, including unaccompanied minors, pregnant people, and survivors of sexual violence.
“We didn't think we would have to keep running even when we arrived in Europe,” said a man who travelled from Afghanistan on foot. He attempted to cross to France from Italy with his brother, but the two men were chased by French border police and fell into a ravine. “MSF [provided medical care], but we lost everything we had.”
Nearly 80 percent of the 1,004 people MSF assisted said they were pushed back into Italy by French police—25 percent of people experienced this more than once. Thirty-seven percent of unaccompanied minors treated by MSF also reported being pushed back, including victims of violence, a survivor of a shipwreck, and a 16-year-old mother and her baby.
Migrants—including minors, pregnant women, parents with young children, older adults, and severely ill people—also reported procedural violations upon being refused entry into France by authorities. Experiences include inaccurate transcription of personal data, lack of information about documents they were required to sign, absence of intercultural mediators to translate or ensure understanding for those being returned to Italy, instances where authorities signed documents on behalf of individuals denied entry into France, and authorities preventing individuals from exercising their right to claim asylum.
Several people told MSF they were arbitrarily detained in overcrowded containers overnight, with no special protection for children. They were not provided food or water, medical care was often denied, sanitary facilities were inadequate, and people were forced to sleep on the floor.
French and European Union (EU) law clearly state that refusing entry with notification (known as refus d'entrée) at internal EU borders is often without legal basis if someone is apprehended beyond 10km (approximately 6 miles) from the border. However, at least one family reported being intercepted well beyond the geographical limits specified by case law. MSF staff in Ventimiglia also identified at least four cases of family separation occurring during pushbacks, causing trauma to those impacted.
“We were stopped yesterday in Nice [more than 19 miles from the border] by the police,” Jean*, a man from Ivory Coast, told MSF in Ventimiglia. “My wife is pregnant. She was taken to the hospital because she fainted while they were handcuffing her. M 2-year-old son and I were taken to the border police station in Menton. We spent the night in the cold and this morning we were pushed back and taken to Italy, but we have no news of my wife.”
Living conditions remain dire for people on the move
On top of this, access to adequate shelter, health care, clean water, or sanitary facilities is extremely limited for people transiting in Ventimiglia. Except for two new refuge centers in the city, known as first assistance centers, there is nowhere for extremely vulnerable migrants who have been pushed back from France to shelter safely. Migrants are often forced to sleep on the street or in makeshift shelters. Two other assistant centers are not yet functioning and essential services including accommodation, health care, and legal support are only provided by local associations and civil society groups.
MSF runs a mobile clinic in Ventimiglia to assist individuals in transit and often treats illnesses related to poor living conditions. Patients have presented with acute conditions, including skin, respiratory, and gastrointestinal diseases, and musculoskeletal complaints and injuries sustained while attempting to cross. MSF teams also treat people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Treatment for these illnesses and conditions is often otherwise unavailable to people migrating.
“It is crucial that people in transit, regardless of their legal status, are granted the right to receive comprehensive protection and services that address their needs,” said Sergio Di Dato, MSF’s project coordinator in Ventimiglia. “The bottleneck created in Ventimiglia is not an isolated case but reflects the larger trend of European migration policies that prioritize containment and securitization over fundamental rights and international protection.”
Steps Europe must take to prevent more harm
- MSF urges Italy, France, and other European countries to implement all necessary measures to prevent further harm to this vulnerable population and calls on these governments to:
- Put an end to systematic and indiscriminate pushbacks and degrading and inhumane treatment at European Union internal and external borders;
- End the practice of arbitrary detention of people on the move and the use of violence at borders;
- Ensure humane and dignified treatment as well as access to health care and decent living conditions for migrants transiting in Ventimiglia, across Italy, and throughout Europe;
- Guarantee and increase safe and legal passage for people seeking assistance and protection in Europe;
- Guarantee the right of all foreign children to seek asylum on French and European territory.
*Name has been changed
About MSF in Italy
MSF has worked in Italy since 1999 in partnership with Italian authorities to provide medical, humanitarian, psychological, and social assistance to migrants and refugees.. In the southwestern Calabria region, MSF provides medical and psychological assistance to migrants arriving by sea and in reception centers. In Ventimiglia, which borders France, MSF runs a mobile clinic to assist migrants and asylum seekers transiting in the area. In southern Italy, MSF runs a project in Palermo, Sicily, to rehabilitate of survivors of violence and torture in collaboration with local health authorities.
About MSF in France
Since 2015, MSF provided medical assistance to migrants excluded from health care in France. In the Île-de-France region, MSF runs a day reception center offering multidisciplinary care including mental health, legal support, and social support. The center has welcomed more than 3,000 young people since it opened in 2017.
MSF also runs three shelters for age-disputed unaccompanied minors. Since 2019, more than 350 unaccompanied minors have been accommodated and cared for by MSF. In April 2023, MSF relaunched activities in Calais, northern France, to provide migrants and refugees with medical and mental health care.