In ‘Calais of Italy’ tension soars over migrant crisis

Emmanuel Macron is not a welcome guest in the Italian border town of Ventimiglia, a flashpoint in Europe's migration crisis.

In 'Calais of Italy' tension soars over migrant crisis
A migrant waits for a a host house at the Italian Red Cross camp in Ventimiglia. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Residents are furious at the French president for charging Rome with “cynicism and irresponsibility” this week after it turned away a rescue boat carrying more than 600 asylum-seekers.

“It's bad what happened to the Aquarius (ship) but how dare Macron criticise Italy!” vented retired teacher Fulvia Semeria who volunteers for the Secours Catholique charity, a key aid group for migrants.

“It's unacceptable from a country that does nothing for migrants and even rejects them,” she said, calling his remarks “insulting and totally unfair”.

The pretty northern town at the gates of the French Riviera has received tens of thousands of asylum seekers pushed back by France since the eruption of Europe's worst migration crisis three years ago.

This is in addition to scores of desperate African refugees landing on its shores after undertaking the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

The influx has seen Ventimiglia dubbed the “Calais of Italy”, in reference to the French coastal town notorious for its sprawling migrant camps.

Tapping into anger over the arrivals, the far-right League party reaped a record result of 30 percent in March elections here. The score helped catapult the party and its leader Matteo Salvini into a coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

Semeria laments Rome's rejection of the migrant vessel last weekend — triggering a diplomatic spat between France and Italy — but says it may have been a much-needed “wake-up call for Europe”.

“I have been volunteering here for years and seen so many children and even pregnant women being turned back by France.”

'Italy's fed up'

At least 16 migrants have died trying to cross from France into Italy since September 2016, falling off mountains, being hit by cars or electrocuted while hiding under train carriages.

Every morning, Secours Catholique hands out food, clothes and medicine to hundreds of asylum seekers — many from Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea — in central Ventimiglia.

The struggle to help them increased last summer when police shut a nearby migrant camp, opened by the local church following an appeal from Pope Francis, after receiving complaints from residents.

Instead, some 400 migrants are now hosted at a Red Cross site outside town.

“It's enough, Italy's fed up! Why should it all fall on us?” exclaimed vendor Giuseppe Piccolo, 60, at Ventimiglia's famed market.

The fresh produce draws many French visitors who travel in the opposite direction of the migrants for their weekly shopping.

“Yes, I've voted for the League, against the migrants,” Piccolo told AFP.

Fellow vendor Davide Regina, 59, praised Salvini — now interior minister — for blocking the Aquarius migrant ship.

“Sadly, Salvini was right to do so. It needs to serve as a lesson because we can't cope here anymore,” Regina said.

'Out of place'

Under a current bilateral agreement, France can return more than 85 percent of all rejected migrants to Italy.

For now, French officials say that the system continues to work.

However, during a February visit to Ventimiglia on his campaign trail, Salvini vowed to “do what the French do: control the borders, welcome those who have the right to stay and reject the hundreds of thousands of people who don't have the right to stay in Ventimiglia or the rest of Italy.”

Since entering government, he has reiterated his pledge to clamp down on illegal immigration and already made good to on his promise to turn away boats.

In light of recent developments, the centre-left mayor's office is feeling the heat ahead of regional elections in 2019.

Deputy mayor Silvia Sciandra called Macron's comments “out of place”, stressing what was really needed was a common EU migrant policy.

“From one day to the next in 2015, we found ourselves with hundreds of people at our train stations,” she told AFP.

“We are doing what we can to maintain the dignity of migrants and of our citizens who have the right to not see their town turn into a camp.” 

By Claudine Renaud


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.