Good morning, it’s the French police welcoming you (just in case you can) prepare your travel documents

The mountain area around around Oulx.

This article is a joint work of The Border Starts Here and the On Border Collective.

“Even before the arrival at the border, the French police stopped and entered the bus – good morning, it’s the French police welcoming you, please prepare your travel documents – already differentiating between who was really going to be welcomed and who was not”. 

Hamza, who is a 27 years old student from Algeria and who decided to start the route towards France through the Balkans during his Erasmus in Bulgaria, is one of the people who are trying to cross the French-Italian border through the mountains, in the higher part of Susa Valley.1 From Clavière – an Italian city on the border – to Briancon – the first French “safe city” – it is 18 km of mountain trail, more or less 6 hours walk. The conditions of the path are hard and especially during the winter it can be dangerous because of the freezing temperatures, the snow and the risky road. Transit people are exposed to the risk of hypothermia and frost injuries. Still, these mountains are a stage of human hunting by the French Police, who control the passes using technology such as thermal scanners, drones, binoculars, mountain cars and snowmobiles to chase the people on the move and push them back. Until now, 4 people have died from freezing or falling down the mountain during the night-crossing or during the escape from police chase.

The temperatures on the higher Susa Valley are worsening and already drop to minus 20 degrees in the night, when the PoM usually try to cross the border, to avoid being seen during the daytime. “We waited under the snow in a park for the night to come and we tried to rest a bit on a bank but it was snowing over us, it was freezing and we started not to feel our feet anymore. We then started walking around midnight and managed to cross the border getting 2 km inside France, when a French police unite saw us and started to chase us, making us run backwards until our starting point: first Claviere and then Oulx, to find a shelter to rest and recover from the night attempt with our feet swollen and our body frozen”. 

That’s why Hamza, as well as other PoM, have also tried their chance taking a Flixbus coach that would bring them to Paris or other French cities in a few hours. However, these coaches are almost always stopped and controlled by the French police. “The ones who have no documents are ordered to get off from the bus and then subjected to interrogation by the French border police and then by the Italian. We [H. and other PoM] waited for around 4 hours at the Italian police office and then they sent us back again to the starting point: Oulx bus station”. 

Next to the train and bus station in Oulx lies the Fraternità Massi Shelter, opened in 2018 thanks to the Talita Kum Foundation and in cooperation with other organizations such as Rainbow 4 Africa. It is financed by private donors and institutionally recognised by the local administration, the prefecture and the police, which brings there PoM pushed back after the interrogation. At the moment it is the only structure available for the PoM in the area. They provide humanitarian help such as shelter to recover for a couple of nights – with a space for the families and for the single men – food, winter  clothing, basic medical and legal support and  some basic information to better orientate in the area. 

“The daily life in Oulx is very hard during this winter period, since the single men have to leave the structure in the morning, after receiving the necessary clothes to try to cross the border, and are allowed to enter again after 4 PM. This means that if the bus to reach a closer place on the border doesn’t show up or deny you to take it, you can just choose between walking 15 km more to reach Clavière, try to find a taxi, spend hundreds of euros to pay a smuggler who will bring you there or being stuck in Oulx, exposed to the cold temperatures and a situation of vulnerability during the day.” 

Massi Shelter, the mountains around Oulx and its train and bus station .

Indeed, the complication related to the buses makes the way much harder. In the last month the bus from Oulx to Clavière is meant to make just one ride in the morning, The alternatives are the multiple rides to Cesana, a city 7 km far away from Claviere, but  since the 1st of October the bus company is short in employees due to the COVID-19 green pass rules. Therefore, the bus service towards the border is everything but regular. More than this, it has happened multiple times that the bus driver lied on the direction of the ride or directly refused to take PoM. On its side, the Italian police, sometimes joined by elements from the French one, shows a special commitment in PoM departures – to be able to cooperate with the french police – and on the other side is identifying and putting pressure on the Massi Shelter’ volunteers and the activists that support in different ways PoM. 

This kind of control of people who are supporting and standing in solidarity with PoM through the Shelter or in an independent way is not new to the Oulx context. From 2018 winter until last spring 2021 eviction, there has been a self-managed occupation of a roadman’s house in the city made by the Chez JesOulx group, which was open everyday at any time reaching in some periods the capacity of 80 people. The city’s institutions have never been in favour of a non-institutional and self managed structure, but they let the place to be open for more than two years just to avoid the crowding of PoM in the streets and in the station as it is happening since years in Ventimiglia – another route-city at the Italian-French border on the seaside. Many activists of the Chez JesOulx group are now facing charges and trials after the eviction for inciting illegal migration and for the occupation of the abandoned roadman’s house itself. It was also recently that Emilio Scalzo, a No Tav and No Border activist, was imprisoned. He has been accused of violence toward a public officer, put in prison without a trial and extradited to France because he tried to defend himself from a police attack (May 2020) during a protest at the Italian-French border in support of PoM and of their right to move safely. 

On the French side in Briançon, the Refuge Solidaire association has ruled since 2017  the omonimous place, welcoming thousands of PoM in a small but fundamental shelter next to the train station. In 2020 the new administration, unfavorable to this activity, asked the building back. In 2021 The Refuge Solidaire collective managed to buy a bigger and more suitable place – Les terrasses solidaires – to welcome and support the ones that manage to cross the border, whose opening took place in June 2021. Its management turned out to be very complicated: since mid October to the beginning of December 2021, the activists decided to close Les Terrasses, because it was suffering from chronic overcrowding. In the meantime, welcoming and related activities were moved to a local church. With this action activists were reivendicating the opening of a parallel, state-run, place that could participate in the welcoming of a growing number of PoM. The state replied with an intensification of border controls and push-backs, and after the definitive, negative response from the state, the activists decided to reopen Les Terrasses Solidaires not to fail in the ethical imperative of welcoming PoM and protecting them from winter. There is also almost always a group of activists – le maraudes  – who are patrolling the ski slope on the French side of the border to rescue or support people in situations of vulnerability. These days also the Rifugio Massi is preparing a new structure in Oulx to be able to host a higher number of people and to offer a more stable medical support, thanks to hundreds of volunteers and activists involved in and out of the structure. 

Therefore, the support and the solidarity towards people passing by Oulx has always been left to the local population and other volunteers, movements and associations who are filling the gap where the State is absent. The institutions are just dealing with preventing border-crossing as well as with repression of solidarity and political actions that go against the EU criminal migration policy based on increasing militarisation and closing the borders. The stories of racialization, based on having or not a passport, that People on the Move experience in the EU, such as that related by Hamza, should make us think and condemn these passport-based privileges, rights and legislation that is violating the rights of the people who are seeking for a better future in another country. These days, with the reopening of the ski infrastructures in Clavière and Mongenevre, the paradox of a border area open to the crossing of paying tourists but closed to those in search of a better future, shows up again with its burden of violence, suffering and injustice. 

1 ) The migratory flux in the Susa Valley area started to be directed first (winter 2017) to Bardonecchia with the Scala Pass, but seeing the dangerous path of that side and the lack of solidarity structure there, Oulx became a better junction and relief point to try to cross the border from Clavière.

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