Italy: Abandoned at the borders

Stories of people on the move during winter along the northern border

Italy 2021 © Francesca Volpi
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In recent months, the number of migrants and refugees at Italy's northern borders has sharply increased. Even through the winter, people head west across the snow-capped mountains towards France; many tell stories of how they were repeatedly turned back by the French police. On Italy’s eastern border, people arrive on foot through the woods and along trails after traveling the Balkan route, where some report being beaten by Bosnian or Croatian police.

While the overall number of migrants and refugees is lower than it was a few years ago, the humiliation, violence, and harassment continues to take place. The only thing that keeps them going, despite all they have suffered, is hope for what lies ahead.

Assistance from authorities is completely absent in the border cities; it is left to activists and volunteers to receive people in transit and provide them with humanitarian assistance and medical care, with the support of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). In mid-December, two MSF teams traveled to the main transit points in Ventimiglia, Oulx, Bolzano, and Trieste to speak with migrants and refugees on the move, along with the people trying to help them.

Here are some of their words, followed by MSF’s call to the Italian authorities to provide people with shelter, humanitarian aid, and access to medical care in all border areas.

A map of the main transit points for migrants and refugees along Italy's northern border.
The main transit points for migrants and refugees along Italy's northern border. © Carrie Hawks/MSF

Ventimiglia

Last July, authorities in the border town of Ventimiglia closed the transit camp near the Roja River. Despite its shortcomings, the camp was a place for people to seek shelter while they were on the move. Now migrants and refugees have no choice but to sleep on the streets, along railway tracks, in abandoned buildings, and on the beach, relying wholly on humanitarian aid organizations. Volunteer groups and informal networks of activists provide hot meals near the French border and strategize to find nearby shelters for families with children.

Delia owns a bar near the Ventimiglia train station. She opens the doors of her restaurant to migrants and refugees. Filippo, in his sixties and nearing retirement, comes in every day to drink coffee and see if there is a new family to host. “For the past year, my wife and I have opened the doors of our home. We’ve already hosted more than 30 families. We do it as a service. We welcome families with children and single women: people who have no form of protection and should never have to sleep on the streets.”

Caritas, a global relief organization, also provides legal advice, meals, clothes, and accommodations for migrant and refugee families. COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on these activities. “We’ve been forced to suspend the shower service and meals are distributed outdoors. After the closure of the transit camp, the situation deteriorated and today public institutions are entirely absent. The people who arrive are tired, they are losing hope. We are worried about the future; if the numbers increase, the situation could become critical,” says Cristian Papini, the director of Caritas in Ventimiglia.

A young couple with a seven-year-old girl were given a place to stay in one of the Caritas apartments. Originally from Ethiopia, the family arrived in Libya in 2018, where they were imprisoned in a detention center in Kufra for eight months. In the detention center, the parents were beaten and tortured in front of their daughter until the church in their home village paid their ransom. They then set out on their first attempt to reach Europe by boat. After two days at sea, they were intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and returned to Libya. After another four months in a detention center, they managed to escape and found work as servants, before attempting to cross again. In October 2020, after three days at sea, they arrived in Lampedusa and then continued their journey, traveling by bus and train, to Ventimiglia.

Ventimigilia Images

After authorities closed the transit camp near the Roja River in Ventimiglia last July, migrants and refugees have no choice but to live on the streets, along railway tracks, in abandoned buildings, or on the beach. Italy 2021 © Francesca Volpi
Every evening, in a parking lot in front of the cemetery in Ventimiglia, volunteers distribute hot meals and clothes to people on the move. Italy 2021 © Francesca Volpi
Delia owns a bar near the Ventimiglia train station. She invites migrants and refugees to her restaurant. Filippo, a local in his sixties and nearing retirement, comes in every day to drink coffee and see if there is a new family he can host at his house. Italy 2021 © Francesca Volpi

The October flood and the nameless dead

At the beginning of October 2020, severe flooding hit Ventimiglia, and in the days that followed, 10 bodies were found, eight of which were never identified. "They were probably people in transit who were sleeping along the river and were swept away by the water," says Luca Daminelli, an activist working with Progetto 20K. Every evening volunteers from this group can be found in a parking lot in front of the cemetery, distributing hot meals and clothes to people on the move. “We are able to reach out to people and families in transit thanks to an extensive network of solidarity that has been established in the area,” he says. “All the assistance is provided by the voluntary sector. MSF donated sleeping bags, blankets, shoes, and clothes that we distribute to people in transit—all essential items for them to continue their journey during the winter months.”

Oulx

Over the past three years, more than 10,000 people have crossed the Alps through Oulx, in the Upper Susa Valley, to reach France. The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown restrictions have led to a decrease in the number of people on the move, but have not stopped them completely. Over the summer, at least 500 people passed through Oulx. Most of them travelled along the Balkan route from Iran and Afghanistan. Those who came from North Africa chose this route to avoid the detention centers in Libya and the risk of drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Talithà Kum refuge is located opposite Oulx railway station. Open from 6 pm to 10 am, it is managed by a network of volunteers from Rainbow for Africa and Waldensian Diaconia. A few kilometers further along the road leading to the border, a former roadworker's house has been occupied for years by a group of activists to provide round-the-clock shelter for people in transit. “During the winter, the mountain landscape turns into an ice and snow trap for those who try to cross it,” says Piero Gorza, an anthropologist and Piedmont representative of Doctors for Human Rights (MEDU).

The sleeping quarters of the Talithà Kum refuge, located across from the Oulx railroad station. The shelter is open from 6 pm to 10 am and is managed by a network of volunteers. Italy 2021 © Francesca Volpi

The journey begins in the square in front of the station, where buses leave for Claviere, the last Italian town before the border. From Claviere, migrants and refugees hope to reach the town of Briançon, in France. “When you walk in temperatures of -15°C (5°F), if your feet get wet, you risk your life,” says Gorza. “Winter is a critical and dramatic time in which everyone involved needs to work together to save lives. Fortunately, this valley also has strong traditions of solidarity, struggle and resistance, embedded in people’s memories from the years after the war. There have only been five deaths in all these years thanks to the volunteers and activists who provide assistance in the mountains. It’s like giving a lifejacket to someone drowning at sea. It prevents deaths.”

Bolzano

About 120 migrants were living on the street of Bolzano in mid-December. People are still arriving to the city with hopes of crossing the border, but the Brenner Pass is closed. About 50 people are living in terrible conditions under the motorway bridge, amidst piles of trash, with rats running between their battered tents, and with no access to clean water or toilets.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, people living here could get medical treatment thanks to a mobile clinic and a canteen run by the Volontarius association. As well as basic medical care, people could have a hot meal while sitting in a heated indoor space.

Bolzano Images

A slideshow of makeshift shelters from Bolzano
People are living in terrible conditions under a highway bridge in Bolzano, amidst piles of garbage, with rats running between their battered tents. Italy 2021 © Vincenzo Livieri
The migrants and refugees who sleep under the highway in Bolzano have no access to clean water or toilets. Italy 2021 © Vincenzo Livieri
A tent by the river
Migrants and refugees across northern Italy live in makeshift shelters like this one along the Eisack River near Bolzano. Italy 2021 © Vincenzo Livieri

MSF supports Bozen Solidale, another non-profit group that is active in the area, by providing sleeping bags, blankets, shoes, and clothes, which are distributed directly to people outside the reception system.

Issifi, originally from Niger, spent some time in Germany and Switzerland, but returned to Italy. He lived on the streets in Bolzano for more than a year until he met Reiner, a farmer who grows organic apples. Reiner invited him to stay on his farm, and Issifi remained there even after apple-picking season was over. “Getting to know his story was important,” says Reiner “It enriched me, and I was struck by his experiences during his journey. None of us can really imagine their suffering and the terrible things they have experienced in the course of their journeys. Yet despite having lived such a hard life, they always have smiles on their faces.”

Trieste

Migrants and refugees coming from Turkey pass through Greece, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia along the Balkan route. They travel by any means possible, but mostly on foot, and enter Italy via the Trieste border crossing. Men, women, and children intercepted along these borders are often turned back, sometimes violently, especially in Croatia and Bosnia. 

Clothes and makeshift shelter in the woods
Along the border in Trieste, worn-out backpacks and dirty clothes line the woodland paths, abandoned and no longer usable. Italy 2021 © Vincenzo Livieri

In Trieste, most migrants and refugees stay in the city for fear of getting pushed back, which can occur up to 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) from the border. They are welcomed by the Italian Consortium of Solidarity (ICS).

Thanks to word of mouth, which extends beyond borders and languages, many migrants and refugees on the move gather in the garden in front of the railway station in the evenings. It is here that volunteers from Linea d'ombra and Strada SiCura offer hot drinks, food, clothing and, when necessary, treat the physical injuries resulting from people’s journeys. These are generally foot injuries due to walking long distances in unsuitable shoes or even barefoot. Many people are robbed and stripped of everything they own during the course of their journey.

A medic bandages a leg.
In Trieste, medics provide aid to migrants and refugees in the square in front of the main railway station. Italy 2021 © Vincenzo Livieri

MSF recognizes the irreplaceable commitment of activists, volunteer groups, and local communities, often working in isolation, who seek to ensure dignified living conditions and access to guidance and support for migrants and refugees on the move.  

However, it is primarily the responsibility of the government to adopt migration policies that guarantee assistance and protection, rather than exclusion and suffering. Inhumane reception conditions, violence and abuse at the hands of the police, and repeated pushback at border crossings, do not stop people from seeking a life of dignity, but instead cause suffering and major humanitarian consequences. All too often, they create the conditions for even more dangerous routes.

MSF calls on the Italian authorities to put an end to the repeated pushback of foreign citizens intercepted at the Italian-Slovenian border. Migrants and refugees are pushed back first to Croatia and then to Bosnia, where they are left to suffer desperate living conditions and systematic abuse. MSF is appealing to Italian authorities to ensure that the actions of the police on the border with France, carried out jointly with the French authorities, respect people's dignity and safety and protect the most vulnerable people, including families, women with children, and unaccompanied minors. MSF further calls on Italian authorities to guarantee adequate reception conditions, assistance, and access to medical care in all border areas, with measures that take into account the specific vulnerabilities of this group of people and the limited time they spend on Italian soil.