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Dodging Death Along the Alpine Migrant Passage

Along the dangerous Alpine route from Italy to France, Annalisa Camilli of Internazionale meets young migrants desperate to reach northern Europe, and the local volunteers trying to make sure their villages are not another deadly stop on the migration trail.

Written by Annalisa Camilli Published on Read time Approx. 13 minutes
Migrants start to walk in the direction of the Colle della Scala (Col de l'Echelle) a snow-covered pass to cross the border between Italy and France, on January 13, 2018. PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP/Getty Images

Following the blast of a horn and the screeching of brakes, 17-year-old Mohammed Traoré from Guinea stepped off one of the last trains from the Italian town of Oulx. He looked around; the platform was nearly empty, the lampposts radiating a faint glow in the thick, humid air, and the cold creeping under the gray jacket that the teenager had forgotten to button up.

A large blue sign overhead bore the name of the station in white letters: Bardonecchia. He had heard of the Italian town from friends via a WhatsApp group chat. It is here that the Alpine route begins, a trail that leads to France after a six-hour trek through the Col de l’Échelle mountain pass.

Traoré planned to cross the Alps at first light the next day, despite the snowfall. It would be his second attempt to cross the French border. He had already tried to take a train across the border a day earlier, but was stopped by police when he reached Modane station in France. He was held for a few hours, before being escorted onto a train headed for Italy along with five other young men.

‘Danger’ in Four Languages

By 9 p.m., the temperature outside was –11C. Traoré had never seen the snow before, and it was just like he imagined it would be: a stretch of white covering the road, creaking under his feet. The teenage boy, who came to Italy from Libya in July 2017, has thin, muscular legs, and he hopped down the stairs of the underpass to shake off the shivers. “Danger,” said a sign in English, French, Arabic and Tigrinya pinned to the station notice board. Crossing the Alps in the dead of winter can cost you your life.

The Bardonecchia station waiting room is closed at this time of day after a February 2017 decree from the mayor and the National Railways. The migrants who had already arrived were waiting for volunteers from a nonprofit called Rainbow for Africa to open up the night shelter next to the station: two rooms and a bathroom in the former customs house, which has been repurposed by the Mountain Rescue corps.

The night shelter cannot be opened before 11 p.m., again under orders of the mayor, who fears that providing migrants with structured services could serve as a pull factor. The same charge was leveled against NGOs carrying out search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean last summer, and it was used throughout the year in many Italian cities, from Rome to Ventimiglia, to criminalize such acts of solidarity as the offering of warm meals, blankets and assistance to migrants in transit who were sleeping on the streets.

Nevertheless, every night in Bardonecchia, a dozen asylum seekers take refuge in the underpass once the room in the station is closed down, waiting for the night shelter to open. They are assisted by volunteers from Italy’s Susa Valley and Turin city who have formed a network called Briser les frontières (Shatter the Borders).

“Our main task is to inform people of the risk they are facing,” Daniele Brait, an activist from Bussoleno, explained. “Looking at a map, it might look like it’s only a short distance between Italy and France, but the reality is that braving the mountains at this time of year with no equipment means you’ll never make it alive.”

Many of the volunteers are also part of the No TAV activist group, which opposes the creation of a high-speed rail under the Alps. They see the fight against the high-speed railway as connected to the fight for people’s freedom of movement. “The No TAV activists want to keep the mountains from being destroyed to accommodate a freight train line, in a system that would allow the free circulation of goods, but not of people,” Brait said.

From the Sea to the Alps

When the volunteers arrived, they distributed a meal of lentils and tea and some clothes to the migrants. Mohammed Traoré took a scarf and two hats. “Aquarius,” he exclaimed, when he saw me. It’s like a magic word. Aquarius is the name of the ship, operated by the NGO SOS Méditerranée in partnership with Medecins Sans Frontieres, that rescued him off the coast of Libya. Traoré and I first met aboard the Aquarius. He gave me a hug and recalled that dark night on the rubber dinghy, the fear of dying and the exhaustion after hours spent drifting under the sun.

As we looked at the pictures on his cell phone, Traoré thought of the bodies stretched out on the deck, with no strength left in them. He described the joy he felt spying the lights of the Sicilian port of Pozzallo from the deck of the ship. He remembered thinking: I’m in Europe at last. “I thought Italy was Europe; I didn’t think there would be so many problems, or that each European country would be so different,” he said.

After disembarking from the Aquarius, Traoré was transferred to a reception center in Cesena in north central Italy. But his asylum decision never came through. “It didn’t work, it must have been destiny,” he said softly. So Traoré escaped the center, and ended up sleeping on the streets until he decided to cross the border.

Some of his friends had already made it to the French city of Toulouse, and suggested the Alpine route. “Staying in Italy makes no sense to me, even though it’s not easy taking the mountain road in the middle of winter,” Traoré said in slow, deliberate French. “Crossing the desert and the Mediterranean Sea was hard, but passing the mountains in all this snow is going to be even harder. We will be risking our lives again, but we have no other choice.” Traoré has few expectations about France: “I will be able to speak French, my native language. That’s about it. No illusions.”

Despite the snow and the cold, since late November the Bardonecchia Mountain Rescue Service has recorded thousands of migrants passing through the Col de l’Échelle. “We have received many calls, especially at night, and have found people lost on the tracks, some of them with no shoes, all of them freezing and ill-equipped,” said Alberto Rabino, deputy chief of the Bardonecchia Mountain Rescue Service.

On December 20, they rescued six migrants who had become stranded in the snow: “We bring them thermal blankets, warm clothes, but as soon as they’re back on their feet, they ask to be allowed to resume their journey, knowing full well that the gendarmerie awaits them on the other side,” Rabino said.

Turned Away from France

Mohammed Traoré spent the night in a red sleeping bag on the floor of the Mountain Rescue night shelter in Bardonecchia with others who had also decided to leave – Adam, Aboubakr and Souleiman. Nearly all of them are from Francophone African countries, mostly Guinea and Ivory Coast.

Carlino Dall’Orto, a 69-year-old physician from the Italian city of Vicenza who volunteers with Rainbow for Africa, tried in vain to convince them of the dangers of the crossing. “They come to Bardonecchia wearing clothes that are totally inadequate for mountain conditions, but they are very determined,” he said. Dall’Orto, who has traveled extensively in Africa, addressed the young men in a fatherly fashion, in an attempt to dissuade them from leaving.

Often, in the afternoon, a white French gendarmerie van pulls up outside the station and unloads migrants who were intercepted at the border, Dall’Orto said. They include both undocumented migrants and some who have been living in Italy and France for years, but do not have all the necessary papers. “There was a young Albanian man a few days ago who had some problems with a visa, and he got sent back,” Dall’Orto said. They are forced to get off the bus or train, and they are brought back to Bardonecchia or Oulx at any time of day or night.

African migrants prepare to spend the night in the railway station on January 13, 2018, in Bardonecchia, Italy. (Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

“About a hundred migrants passed through the station at Bardonecchia in the second half of December,” said Emanuel Garavello, who works for the Waldensian Church Diaconate. Together with his colleagues, he provides mobile legal assistance services to migrants.

Garavello said there is an alarming trend among migrants in Italy that “many flee the centers long before their asylum decisions come in. They choose to leave the reception centers, ignoring the fact that they will lose their right to stay there, and unaware of the opportunities that they could benefit from.” Further, there are many young minors coming through who have no knowledge of what their rights and legal status in Italy are, he said.

The Waldensian Diaconate and Italy’s Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI), are monitoring the cases of minors crossing the Alps. They have criticized daily violations by French police officers, who stop migrants at the border, despite their obligation to grant them protection, especially in the case of minors.

The French police do not discriminate between adults or minors, which is in violation of international law,” Elena Rozzi, an attorney with ASGI, explained. “There was a particularly outrageous case a few months ago: A 13-year-old boy was abandoned by the police in the middle of the night, in the snow, right past the border. Fortunately, he was found by someone driving by,” she recalled.

The Journey

The following day, Mohammed Traoré opened his eyes at 7 a.m. The room was warm and thick with bodies, the air stale. He jumped out of his sleeping bag and started to carefully get dressed, layering three pairs of pants. He doesn’t own boots, just a pair of gray leather sneakers, so he tied plastic bags around his feet to keep the snow seeping in. The volunteers had given him a windbreaker. Together with Adam, a young man from the Ivory Coast who has been living in Italy for many years, he filled a backpack with cookies and bottles of water.

Before leaving, Traoré ate breakfast with the rest of the group. Some of them were not ready to leave right away, while others had just arrived from station and joined them immediately. They set off on down the road, climbing 4km (2.5mi) towards the Pian del Colle (Bottom of the Hill), the place where the path to France begins.

They marched along the edge of the road in single file, as a group of tourists carrying skis headed for the ski lifts. They walked briskly, passing the Olympic Village built for the 2006 Winter Games and the pretty cabins in the hamlet of Les Arnauds. It takes about an hour to reach Pian del Colle, where a cross-country skiing trail leads to the Col de l’Échelle mountain pass, 1,762m (5,781ft) above sea level.

A chill, damp wind was blowing, but it was a bright day, the sky cloudless. The group rested after an hour’s walk at the foot of the trail, ate some cookies, and then resumed their march, leaning into the climb, one step after another. They had, in fact, already crossed the border, and were now on French soil, but the police do not patrol this side of the mountain. The first crossroads lay a few hundred meters ahead. They were tempted to keep going on the beaten ski trail, but their path lay elsewhere.

They found a sign to the French towns Briançon and Névache. Someone had scrawled in marker pen, “Fight the borders, No TAV.” This was where toughest part of the crossing begins: The snow is three feet deep in some places. Their feet sank, and suddenly they found themselves up to their knees in snow. Three exhaustingly long hours had gone by, and the group was trying to keep focused. They remained in silence as they trudged up the winding track. Aboubakr wanted to take a picture, but the others told him to keep moving. The Mountain Rescue Corps had warned of avalanches. In the summer, cars drive along the asphalt road, but in winter the landscape is white; everything is buried under several feet of snow.

They had nearly reached the pass when Mohammed Traoré sank deep into the snow. He panicked, unable to move and losing feeling in his feet. The group helped pull him out and reassured him they were almost there. The GPS on their cell phones showed they were close to the passage down the mountain. Traoré got back on his feet, trying to focus on the future. “I thought I wasn’t going to make it,” he said. But sure enough, just as his fellow travelers had promised him, once they cleared a couple of tunnels in the rock, the road was all downhill through the Vallée de la Clarée.

Yet the group did not have time to catch their breath. They were too afraid of a run-in with the police. Adam, the oldest and most cool-headed among them, laid out the plan: They would stop at the first shelter, where they would wait for dark. It was past 2 p.m., and they had covered 14km (8.7mi), climbing 500m (1,640ft) uphill in the snow. Their knees were wobbly with fatigue, but their muscles kept going. Mohammed Traoré said he felt strangely warm.

When they reached the first house along the road, a few young men from the valley who call themselves bénévoles, or volunteers, invited them to come in and eat something. Red sauce was being heated on a gas stove and the air in the shelter smelled of tomatoes and moisture. They waited two hours until nightfall to resume their march.

The Last Bastion of ‘Refugees Welcome’

It was snowing when Traoré and his five fellow travelers arrived in Briançon. A French couple had given them a ride in their van despite the risk of being charged with aiding and abetting illegal immigration. In addition to opening their homes to transiting migrants, many residents of the valley have begun offering rides to town.

In July 2017, a migrant reception center was opened in Briançon in the former barracks of the mountain rescue corps. Five feet of snow lay outside the entrance, and Christmas decorations still hung on the wooden door. A mural on the outside wall showed a colorful fist clutching barbed wire.

In a large kitchen, a group of young men sat around a table sharing a tomato and avocado salad and a soup of rice and beans. The walls were covered with notes left by the guests. “Italy and France are two hearts with one lung: Italy rescued me from the sea, France has given me the hope to live,” wrote Mamadouba, a boy from Guinea, on one. Another note lists articles of the French Constitution.

Volunteers moved from one room to the next, carrying food. The self-managed reception center has an official capacity of 16, but on certain days up to 70 people have slept there. There were about 40 people when Traoré and his companions arrived. Some only stay a few hours to eat and get warm, others for a few days.

“It depends on how much money they have; some leave right away. Others wish they could stay a while longer, but we can’t keep them for more than two days,” explained Joel Pruvot, a retired schoolteacher who works as a volunteer at the center. “As Briançon does not have a prefecture (local administration office), they cannot apply for asylum,” he said. The nearest office to file an asylum application is in Gap, 90km (56mi) away.

Since early 2017, about 2,000 migrants have passed through this transit center, around 50 percent of them under 18 years old. Most are men from Guinea and the Ivory Coast. There are two women living at the center. One came by bus with her two children and is sleeping on a mattress in the dining room to keep her separate from the men.

“Even in the best of circumstances, the migrants arrive exhausted and dehydrated, often displaying symptoms of hypothermia,” Pruvot said. It seems as though Briançon is the only place in Europe where the slogan “Refugees Welcome” still carries some meaning; the atmosphere is very similar to the Italian island of Lampedusa or the Greek island of Lesbos at the beginning of the last wave of migrant arrivals.

Around 80 percent of the town’s residents are involved in the effort to help migrants: The center has 51 volunteers, doctors from the local hospital come every day to examine the new arrivals, and shops and restaurants donate fruits, vegetables and other types of food. Some families have taken migrants into their homes, and mountain guides patrol the Alps to make sure that none get lost.

The mayor of Briançon, Gérard Fromm, has supported the volunteers’ efforts from the start. He gave them free use of the former barracks when, in mid-summer, they were welcoming migrants at a makeshift camp in a parking lot. “This is a mountain town, and the rules of the mountain say that everyone who is in danger must be rescued. This is why all the citizens of Briançon are in this together,” Pruvot explained. After all, he said, “we are doing what the government is supposed be doing: preventing accidents from happening in the mountains, preventing people from dying.”

At that moment, Pruvot received a phone call. The station at Bardonecchia had issued a warning about an unaccompanied Sudanese minor who left alone in the afternoon, and they want to make sure that he had arrived safely. Pruvot asked Ali, one of the volunteers, whether his name was on the list of newcomers. Confusion ensued. Ali thought that he probably arrived at another center along with two other boys, but suggested calling to make sure.

Meanwhile in the kitchen, migrants and volunteers played with Roland, a young boy from Ghana who only speaks English but plays with everyone. Mohammed Traoré sat on a bench eating a tangerine. “I’m a survivor,” he said. “I have survived the desert and I’ve seen a lot of people die, I’ve survived the prisons in Libya, and there too I saw a lot of people who didn’t make it. I managed to survive crossing the Mediterranean, and now the snow in the Alps. But I still feel like my journey isn’t over yet.”

He left Kankan in Guinea when he was 15 years old, crossing seven countries and two continents and leaving borders, dangers and suffering behind. Yet he still doesn’t know what lies ahead, nor what city he will end up calling home.

This story was originally published in Italian by Internazionale. You can read the original story here. This version was translated into English by Francesco Graziosi.

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