Migrants try to cross the border between Italy and France passing through the mountains and Passo della Scala, near Bardonecchia, Italy, in January 2018. Danilo Balducci/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.
BARDONECCHIA, ITALY – The strengthening of migration controls at the internal frontiers of Europe is not a smooth affair. Far from only trying to gain control over migrant crossings, EU member states are reshaping border policies to project sovereign power and support state prerogatives, such as anti-terrorism. This work has included the implementation of bilateral agreements between national police forces, as well as measures aimed at intimidating solidarity networks that support migrants. The forced entry into a room of the Bardonecchia railway station, located a few kilometres inside Italy, and the diplomatic row that followed glaringly shows the political stakes that are behind inter-state border cooperation.
I was there, conducting interviews with the NGO Rainbow for Africa for my research project on migrant solidarity networks, when the police burst in. It is a small room that Rainbow for Africa uses, with the authorisation of the municipality of Bardonecchia, to host migrants at night as they try to cross into France. The French customs officers arrived around 8 pm. They had guns and Tasers, and they were holding a Nigerian citizen that they arrested on the train. Their right to enter, they said, was based on a bilateral agreement signed with the Italians in the sixties.
They had guns and Tasers, and they were holding a Nigerian citizen that they arrested on the train.
A cultural-linguistic mediator of the Italian NGO, a non-white person, tried to dissuade them. “No weapons here”, he said. “Nobody is authorised to do arbitrary anti-drugs tests in this room”. One of the customs officers shouted “shut up, this is none of your business”, and proceeded with the Nigerian gentleman towards the toilet, at the back of the room. The Nigerian citizen was travelling from Paris to Naples, with a regular train ticket and a permit to stay in Italy, and he could not understand what the French officers were shouting. They spoke in French only.
He tested negative so they released him, throwing his stuff on the floor and leaving before the Italian police arrived. A diplomatic crisis has since erupted. The Italian Home Office demanded an explanation from the French ambassador to Rome, who cited a bilateral trans-border agreement signed with Italy in 1990 according to which "French customs officers are allowed to intervene in the Italian territory”. Italy replied that the room can no longer be used by the French, as it is now reserved for hosting migrants. Moreover, as the Italian Association of Juridical Studies (ASGI) explains, the bilateral agreements between France and Italy establish that “the French police can act in the Italian territory but on the basis of specific and detailed conditions […] and always through a collaboration with the Italian police”. Therefore, the arbitrary stop and search of the Nigerian citizen, and a forced urine test on the basis of racial profiling (a black man spotted by the French police on a high speed train), also reveal the broader political stakes that go beyond migration.
Sovereignty over what?
What does this event tell us? How should it be analysed in light of the current French-Italian border police cooperation? The day after the event, Italian politicians claimed the need to regain control over national frontiers. “We should kick the French diplomats out of Italy”, declared Matteo Salvini, the leader of the populist right party the League. His and others’ reactions put national sovereignty at the forefront, shifting the whole debate from the arbitrary intervention made on the migrant to the French armed intrusion on Italy.
Trans-border police cooperation between the two countries has a long history, including the 1997 Chambery agreement that establishes rules for police cooperation. Most recently, on 15 March, the prefectures of Turin and Gap signed a new, bilateral trans-border agreement aimed at controlling migration movements and arresting suspected terrorists. Political tension at the border has visibly increased over the past three years, in particular due to two main political issues: France’s suspension of Schengen in May 2015, and the increasing number of migrants risking their lives to evade French border controls by crossing through the Alps.
“You should not dare crossing here. Crossing the Alps it is too dangerous now. With this amount of snow, you will die for sure”, an Italian policeman told four Somali migrants who arrived in Bardonecchia by regional train from Turin. “If you want to be alive tomorrow, don’t try to cross. And also, if you manage now, the French will take you back here, in Italy”. In part a well-intended warning, in part an illustration of the deterrence tactics being deployed along the border, these words demonstrate the different attitudes on the two sides of the borders.
The Italians have little interest in tracking the migrants nor in blocking them – it’s the French who incessantly patrol the frontier.
The Italians have little interest in tracking the migrants nor in blocking them – it’s the French who incessantly patrol the frontier and actively push migrants back into Italy when they find them. For this reason both local NGOs and the Italian police try to discourage migrants from crossing. They know that the chance of dying is very high, and those who succeed initially are very likely sent back. When migrants are detected by the French police, they are returned by van to the town of Bardonecchia and dropped in the main square next to the rail station.
“Sometimes they give a paper to the migrants, some other they do not officially register the push-back”, an activist of the NoTav movement said. “Migrants know that it is extremely hard to cross. Only about 10% manage to reach France at the first attempt, the others try again and again. For their part, the police counts on the fact that, also due to the extreme weather conditions and the difficulty of crossing high mountains, migrants are exhausted after few attempts and give up, claiming asylum in Italy.”
"The problem is not the snow, the problem is the border”
Behind the struggle over border cooperation and national sovereignty, the question of the implementation of the Dublin Regulation comes to the fore. Both states try not to take in potential asylum seekers, with France actively confining migrants in Italy. These repeated pushbacks have severe impacts on the migrants, who are forced to repeatedly undertake the same journey and to constantly divert their routes.
Furthermore, when French customs officers pushed their way past the NGO workers in the Bardonecchia train station they not only intimidated them, but also – I would ague – sent a message to all migrant solidarity networks that are mobilised in the Susa Valley. Alongside Rainbow for Africa, which is authorised by the municipality to manage this temporary medical clinic and hosting space, activists and citizens in the village of Claviere are running a solidarity space without the support of local authorities.
Photo provided by author.
Claviere, which is located just two kilometres from the French border, is the other main crossing point for the migrants. Unlike in Bardonecchia, the municipality did not open any space for them, and therefore a group of citizens decided on 24 March to occupy a room inside the church. The priest took position against the occupation, but in the end the local authorities could not evict the people inside, due to the extra-territorial status of the church. Moreover, the occupation has received quite a lot of support from many citizens in the area and beyond.
The mountains are not the problem, the snow is not an emergency. The problem is the border.
The occupied church is not merely a place for the migrants to stay and rest before trying to cross to France. Its existence as a place of solidarity is an active challenge to the state logics of “managing migration”. In the face of the repeated pushback operations at the border and the risky journeys that migrants undertake on the Alps, the occupants of the church refuse the humanitarian emergency discourse that considers migrants as desperate people to save from the snow. As one said, “the mountains are not the problem, the snow is not an emergency. The problem is the border, that forces these migrants to cross from here and in these conditions”.
The French-Italian frontier is marked by border cooperation activities as well as disputes over arbitrary police interventions, yet at the same time it is a place of growing trans-border solidarity infrastructures. These are under attack due to their support of migrants’ struggles for movement, support which goes beyond the humanitarian gesture of giving something to the migrants. Against inter-state police cooperation, and beyond disputes over border sovereignty, trans-border cooperation is multiplying as citizens defy their own governments to become “criminals of solidarity”.