Claviere, Susa Valley – As tourists begin making their way back to their chalets after a day out skiing in the Italian resort town of Claviere, migrants and refugees hoping to cross into France descend from buses.
The town is home to just 200 people and located two kilometres from the French-Italian border deep inside the Alps.
Groups and families in waterproof sports gear head back as temperatures begin to drop below freezing at sunset, while migrants, with their backpacks and sneakers, make their way to the local church, where activists have occupied a room since the end of March.
Here, they prepare for the night hike through ski tracks that will take them to France.
France has reintroduced border checks with its neighbours in Europe’s Schengen area citing a “persistent terrorist threat”, and has recently notified the EU that it intends to extend them for another six months until October 2018.
Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and non-EU Norway have also reinstated temporary border controls.
To avoid them, Moussa and Mamadou (their names have been changed), two teenagers from the Ivory Coast who met each other on the way to Claviere, are determined to make their way to France in the dead of the night.
The first wants to settle there, where he’d speak the language, to study for a diploma in car mechanics. The second is looking to be reunited with his mother.
Both say they are sixteen years old, and they certainly look too young for the treacherous journey they undertook through the desert in Niger and Libya and the Mediterranean.
“Once in Libya, my mother said I should come back but I was told it wasn’t possible, that it was too dangerous and I would be killed,” Moussa says, recounting the five months he spent in the country, working the fields for eleven hours a day for no pay, at the mercy of a man he knew as Jamal.
As more people started transiting through this route as an alternative to the more dangerous Col de l’Echelle nearby, activists from a group that calls itself Briser les Frontieres (Break the Borders) decided to open an unused room in the church’s basement where migrants prepare for the journey and can return to if they are caught and pushed back by the French border police.
A flight of stairs leads down to a large room, half of which is occupied by a lounge area, furnished with a large table and old sofas and chairs. Behind some curtains, mattresses have been set up on the floor with warm covers. A kitchen with a basic stove and shelves overflowing with pasta, sauces, and biscuits opens up into a backyard, while one of two bathrooms has been set up as a shower room.
Supplies of socks, winter beanies and jumpers are piled up in a storage space, all second-hand and donated by supporters, sometimes collected by the activists themselves in Turin or Milan. While not everyone in town is happy about their presence – including the local priest – several people, including many locals, dropped by throughout an afternoon over the Easter holidays to donate clothes and food.
On the walls, a hand-written sign reads in French “smugglers and cops not welcome,” while another sign addresses similarly “cops and journalists” in Italian. Many people here have bitter memories of what they consider biased media coverage from their time protesting against the high-speed railway (known by its Italian acronym, TAV) that is to be built across this valley.
Waiting for the evening to fall, Moussa and Mamadou challenged two activists to a game of table football. One of them was Benoit Ducos, a French mountain guide who recently made headlines when he rescued a Nigerian woman, eight and a half months pregnant, who had been walking in the snow with her husband and two small children to reach France.
Upon realising the woman was feeling unwell, Benoit decided to drive her to the hospital in Briancon, inside French territory. The group, however, was held by the French police just outside the town for an hour before the woman was taken to the hospital and the husband and children sent back to Italy.
Ducos received a police summons for transporting people in an irregular situation and helping maintain them on French territory, which can carry up to five years in prison and 30,000 euros ($36,895) in fines.
Activists here say they are being accused of the “crime of solidarity.”
“A law created against human traffickers is now being used against solidarity activists,” Ducos told Al Jazeera.
“Every day here [in Italy] and in Briancon, there are people doing amazing things, what I did was nothing extraordinary. I consider it my duty as a citizen,” he said, adding that dozens other activists have been summoned by the French authorities over the past few months. No one has been sentenced so far.
“It works to intimidate people,” Ducos said.
Smugglers ask for up to 350 euros ($450) to guide people through mountain tracks.
High-profile incidents including the one involving Ducos, and that of another pregnant woman who died of cancer after the French police returned her to Italy, are said to have made it harder for people to cross as border controls have intensified.
Collective push-backs across Italy’s northern border by French, but also Swiss and Austrian authorities are often indiscriminate and involve minors, who should instead receive special protections – according to a recent report by NGO Intersos.
While such violations go mostly unnoticed, the Italian authorities and media across the political spectrum went up in arms when, at the end of March, armed French customs officers followed a Nigerian man they suspected of carrying drugs to Bardonecchia, an Italian city close to the border a few kilometres from Claviere.
The officers entered a room set up by an NGO at the station to provide aid to transiting migrants, frightening the staff and forcing the man, who had been travelling from France to Italy, to take a urine test.
The case sparked a diplomatic row between the two countries, with Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoning France’s ambassador to Rome over its violation of Italian sovereignty. France, whose response has been tepid, maintains that the officers were simply following procedures laid out in a 1990 agreement.
“What we are seeing is an internal border that has not existed for more than 20 years, and that from the economic perspective, does not exist,” one of the activists of the group Briser les Frontieres, 34-year-old Alfredo, argued.
“In truth, solidarity is our weapon,” Alfredo said. “Today, someone passed by the church and left 100 euros. She was Italian, maybe from Claviere, we didn’t have time to ask. Reality is often better than the way it is told.”