Can Europe Make It?

An unexpected borderzone: the come-back of the Franco-Italian border

The arrival of the migrants created conflict between Italy and France – with both Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi facing an election year – and quickly escalated into threatening the Schengen Agreement.

Anna Papoutsi
11 November 2014

On September 30, 2014, at 7.20 am, a Congolese migrant was hit by the local TER train going from Italy to France. The man, who was travelling along with other migrants and tried to cross the rail tracks, sustained severe cranial injuries and was transferred to the local hospital. The accident, however, disrupting the life of commuters in one of the richest and most conservative regions of France, echoed the Franco-Italian tension of 2011 that led to the revival of an internal EU border. “This tragic accident reminds us of the migratory crisis in the Italian border”, the MP and President of the General Council of the Alpes-Maritimes, Eric Ciotti, wrote on Twitter, asking for more police measures at the border from the French Minister of the Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve. But which border? Accident or suicide, this tragic event brought to the forefront the Franco-Italian conflict of 2011 over control of the invisible border of Ventimiglia.


Ventimiglia, with a population of about 25,000, is a border town in the Italian Riviera; it is in fact the last Italian town before France, some 20 miles away, as its name asserts; all travellers have to pass through there since the Alps basically block any other passage.

This border town made headlines in 2011 when the Arab Spring triggered a wave of migration from the North African countries. Some 50,000 migrants are reported to have landed in Lampedusa in 2011 alone, according to Sonia Viale, the then Undersecretary at the Italian Ministry of the Interior. Many headed north, through Milan, aiming for Germany and Scandinavia but some arrived in Ventimiglia opening a new route which is still in use today.

They are Francophones, mostly Tunisians, and they are trying to get to France, the former colonial power, whose language they speak, whose economy is somewhat healthier and where many of them have relatives.

Migrants gather at the railway station, usually spending the night there in order to take the first train out. They are approached by smugglers who hadn’t been seen in the area since the internal EU borders were lifted. Every day they set off for France: most of them take the train, others pay smugglers €50 to be driven by car, and the rest walk in broad daylight along the coastal road, where the abandoned border control post still stands.

They aim first for Nice and then for the multicultural Marseille, or Paris, maybe even Calais in order to make one final risky sea crossing to the UK. However, the French border guards everyday board the trains targeting migrant-looking people, asking for papers and pushing back to Italy those who haven’t got any.

Some make it, but for many of them it becomes a painful cross-border ping-pong between the two governments, each with its own political agenda and migration policies. This is a border that shouldn’t really be there to begin with; France and Italy have both ratified the Schengen Agreement and have lifted border controls since 1997, when Italy joined Schengen. However, according to the Chambery bilateral readmission agreement signed in 1997 by Italy and France, each country is allowed to return “illegal immigrants” found in their own territory when it can be “materially proven” that they had transited through the other country.

The conflict over an invisible border

With the arrival of the first migrants in 2011, the issue rose as a potential conflict between Italy and France –with both Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi facing an election year– and quickly escalated into threatening the Schengen Agreement altogether. Herman Van Rompuy, the then European Council President, appealed to both sides not to “exaggerate” the migration issue at stake. “Neither Italy nor France have so far done anything illegal. That said, there is the risk of violating the spirit of the Schengen agreements”.

The Italian government granted those who arrived between January 1 and April 5, 2011, temporary residence permits for humanitarian reasons allowing the migrants to continue their journey further into the Schengen Area. This led to France unilaterally reinstating the border with Italy, establishing border controls on platforms in Menton –the first French city– but also by boarding trains and checking migrants’ papers. The local French authorities went so far as to halt for a day the train connection from Ventimiglia to Menton in their effort to prevent migrants and activists from crossing the border on the “Train for Dignity” from Bologna and Genoa to Marseille [1].

The tension also led to a revisiting of the Schengen Border Code, introducing stricter enforcement of the free circulation conditions. This meant that the temporary residence permits held by the migrants were no longer enough for the French authorities. In addition to possessing a valid travel and residence document, the migrants suddenly needed to justify the purpose of their stay and to prove that they had, “sufficient means of subsistence” calculated in 62 € in cash (the estimated amount of money a tourist would need to spend one day in France)!

Italy let this situation unravel claiming that all Member States needed to take their fair share of the problem of the migrants arriving in Lampedusa on a daily basis. Both the Italian Minister of the Interior and the mayor of Ventimiglia called for solidarity from Europe.

As a result, and following months of controversial negotiations, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council reached an accord on May 30, 2013 for a new mechanism to avoid similar tensions in the future; this tool was meant to allow the EU to tackle situations in which either a Member State is not fulfilling its obligations to control its section of the external border, or a particular portion of the external border comes under unexpected and heavy pressure due to external factors. New common rules were set on, reintroducing checks on internal borders as a “measure of last resort”.


Ventimiglia, Wikicommons. Some rights reserved

Back to normality?

Today, things are back to normal in Ventimiglia; the Italian and French activists are gone, so are the media; the accident caused some outrage among the commuters and gave the opportunity to the French local authorities to make claims for more police measures. The border has become invisible again and the massive numbers of daily commuters are a testament to that; this is a region where people cross the border on a daily basis to go to work or just to get a pizza; the notion of a borderless Europe, par excellence.

But the Schengen space appears to be a privilege enjoyed by EEA citizens only and is a far cry from the reality experienced by migrants to the continent. Far from a “borderless” space, the lifting of internal borders in the Schengen area now means that all internal EU spaces increasingly become subject to border control; migrant-looking individuals are targeted by the authorities in public spaces and are expected to produce their documents at any given time and in unexpected places. In Greece, since 2012, the police operation Xenios Zeus has been targeting migrant-looking individuals in public spaces across the country’s main city centres, leading to the detention of over 80,000 people so far [2].

In a similar fashion, and somewhere we would not normally look out for borders, the Swedish REVA project was launched in 2009 by the Swedish Prison and Probation Service (Kriminalvården) and the Migration Board (Migrationsverket): the project has been racially profiling commuters in the country’s public transport in an attempt to find and deport “illegal immigrants” [3].

Finally, the same, but on an EU-wide level, is explicitly pursued by the FRONTEX operations Aerodromos, Aphrodite, Perkunas and, the latest one, Mos Maiorum. The border is not invisible, but rather, as Balibar points out, the border is everywhere and nowhere [4]. And it is all too visible to migrants and to all those who care to notice.


[1] You can read more on the “Train for Dignity” here

[2] Dalakoglou, D. (2013). ‘From the bottom of the Aegean Sea to Golden Dawn: Security, Xenophobia, and the Politics of Hate in Greece’, Studies in Ethnicity and Education, 13 (3), pp. 514-522.

[3] Keshavarz, M. and Zetterlund, C. (2013). ‘A Method for Materialising Borders in Fahlén’, (ed.), The Silent University, Stockholm: Tensta Konsthall, 27-30.

[4] Balibar, É. (2002) “What is a border” in Politics and the Other Scene (London: Verso)

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