In June 2018, Oxfam issued a report documenting the failure of France and Italy to assist refugees stranded at the border in the small town of Ventimiglia. An estimated 16,500 refugees and other migrants are staying in and around the town located 7km from the French border. One in four are unaccompanied children. Many were cast out of the overstretched Italian asylum system and many came with the intention of reuniting with family in other EU countries. Thousands are now stranded without sufficient assistance or access to essential services.
Hundreds of refugees and other migrants are sleeping rough under a flyover, without drinking water, shelter or heating. The conditions there are described by Oxfam as “extremely precarious”. People construct small camps of cardboard shacks but they are frequently destroyed on the orders of local authorities. They otherwise sleep on blankets or the floor even during winter; there is no heating. Caritas runs a canteen serving one meal a day. There is no clean water for washing or drinking and rushes on the riverbanks are used as toilets.
Roja Camp, the official camp erected outside the town, does not have sufficient capacity for the numbers of refugees and other migrants in need of shelter. Sanitation facilities are “inadequate, unhygienic and often broken”. There are no separate safe spaces for women, men, families and unaccompanied children. The camp is located some distance from the town and there is no transportation; at night the unlit road can be dangerous. The significant police presence and compulsory fingerprinting deter many from staying there.
There is no recent official data on migrants staying in or transiting through Ventimiglia. Caritas maintains the most reliable record based on the numbers of migrants served in the canteen. Most come from Eastern Africa: from January to April 2018, almost 51% were from Eritrea and 23% from Sudan. There are also migrants from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and the Republic of Guinea. About 10% of those stranded are women and around 25% are children (most are between 15 and 17 but some are much younger).
Through its work and interviews it has conducted in Ventimiglia, Oxfam has found that the French authorities are returning refugees and other migrants who attempt to cross the border. Children are verbally and physically abused and arbitrarily detained in violation of French, Italian and international law. “French police officers are not upholding international standards. They taunt children and mistreat them…Some children have had the soles of their shoes cut off before being sent back to Italy,” said Chiara Romagno, a project leader with Oxfam in Ventimiglia.
In addition, French police reportedly stop unaccompanied children and immediately force them onto trains back to Italy after altering their documents. Some had their SIM cards and mobile phones seized. This is in clear violation of the guarantees extended to children under French law, according to which a child who does not want to apply for asylum in France and is stopped at the border may be returned only when authorities have appointed a guardian and allowed a jour franc (24 hours between police custody and the return).
Children, women and men forced to leave their homes should not suffer further abuse and neglect at the hands of the authorities in France and Italy. Oxfam has made a series of recommendations in its report directed towards local authorities in Ventimiglia, the French Government, the Italian Government and the European Union and Member States to stop illegal returns of unaccompanied children, improve procedures for claiming asylum, safeguard the rights and address the needs of asylum seekers and create a fairer and more humane system for managing migration in Europe.