Migrants not welcome in Menton as French force them back to Italy

France’s riot police search trains crossing border and return migrants to Ventimiglia

Menton Garavan is a classic French railway station: two storeys covered in ivy, green shutters and a blue, white and red French tricolour flying on the front. The train from Italy winds its way towards the station in and out of tunnels, past stretches of beaches filling up with sun-worshippers.

Menton Garavan is the first stop in France. One sunny June day, four police vans are parked in front of the station; they are riot police, from France's Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, the CRS.

When the CRS officers hear the train arriving, they move into the station and spread out along the platform. The train conductor watches warily as they board each carriage, check the toilets and unscrew the panels in case a migrant has managed to hide. They walk slowly through the double-decker carriages – their role is to identify migrants, check their papers, remove those who have been registered in Italy and bring them back to the border.

It’s a short drive from the station along the coastline, past the super yachts shipyard, the condominiums and cafes, up the hill to the border with Italy which has been closed since November 2015, when France reimposed border controls.

Amnesty volunteers stand in the shade on the French side, taking note of the migrants crossing into Italy; more than 10,000 migrants were sent back between January and May this year. Some will have been caught by police on the cliff path, others found hidden in vehicles, as well as those taken off the train.

Under the Dublin Regulation, migrants have to see through their asylum claim in the EU country where they were first registered. Activists call it being "Dubliné" in French and "Dublinato" in Italian. Being "Dublined" and walking the 10km back to Ventimiglia is only a temporary setback for most migrants; there is little incentive for them to stay in Italy.

Shelter sought

Ventimiglia has a population of 25,000, a bustling market that sells rabbit and ravioli stuffed with wild herbs. There are numerous hotels for tourists. The town offers migrants accommodation at a Red Cross camp; many women and families have sought shelter there but it is now full. Hundreds of migrants sleep on the beach and by the river after a temporary camp under the motorway was disbanded by the police.

The Catholic charity Caritas provides food, fresh clothes and access to a doctor. On the day I visited, the smell of fresh mint drifted across the courtyard; tabouleh, fried eggs and fresh bread are on the menu.

Two hundred hungry men queue patiently in the courtyard behind barriers. They eat slowly, a few doze off after eating, others talk in groups.

Caritas has two rooms filled with clothes organised according to size – from underwear to sandals, winter jackets to hats. The men’s clothes have been donated by short, tubby Italian men; they are not suitable for the tall, thin migrants who arrive in Ventimiglia with just a small backpack. Shoes are in high demand.

Abdul Malek is in the queue for the doctor. He is from Sudan. He shows me the scars on his wrists from being held in Libya for eight months. He has been in Ventimiglia for a week and has already tried to cross twice.

His friend Mohammed, also from Sudan, is 17. The French police picked him up on the train and sent him back to Ventimiglia. He says that they falsified his date of birth on his form – he was born on November 26th, 2001, but they put it down as November 26th, 2000. If he had been registered as a minor, France would not have been able to legally send him back to Italy.

Shoes destroyed

A recent Oxfam report, Nowhere But Out, highlighted abuse by the French authorities at the border: cutting of the soles of migrants' shoes and falsification of dates of birth, a practice which has been condemned by a French court but appears to be continuing. Since September 2017, at least 16 migrants have died while trying to get into France.

As evening falls, groups of migrants come limping into town. They rinse out their clothes in the sea, and sit on the beach in lines staring out over the water as the sun sets.

Near the beach, I catch a glimpse of teenage girls who I think are Eritrean. They’re walking fast with a group of young men, but it is unclear if these men are their protectors. Between July 2017 and April 2018, Caritas counted 16,475 people in Ventimiglia; one in four were unaccompanied minors.

EU leaders are meeting for a mini-summit on migration on Sunday, in advance of the EU Council’s summit next week. One of the items on the agenda is the speeding-up of returns to the EU country of arrival, according to the Dublin rules.

The challenges for migrants wishing to move around Europe are likely to get bigger, the risks greater. Being “Dublined” doesn’t seem likely to put them off.

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