Border tensions boil over as France 'dumps' migrants in Italy

Relations between Rome and Paris hit new low as rights groups accuse France of mistreating migrants at Italian borders.

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    Border tensions boil over as France 'dumps' migrants in Italy
    A migrant walks along the road next to the French border in Claviere, Italy [File:Massimo Pinca/Reuters]

    Relations between Italy and France hit a new low this week, with Rome accusing French border guards of illegally crossing the border to "dump" unwelcome migrants inside Italian territory.

    On Monday, a delegation from the Italian interior ministry was expected in the Italian mountain village of Claviere, 80km north of Turin, to investigate increasing reports of illegal crossings by French officers.

    "The French are trespassing, dumping migrants at their pleasure … but Italy is no longer the refugee camp of Europe," said Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, as he ordered a fresh military deployment to check the border on Sunday.

    Italian authorities claim that French officers disregard the frontier line as well as standard refoulement procedures for migrants, often dropping them in the woods between Claviere and the French town of Montgenevre.

    To defuse the tensions, Christophe Castaner, the newly-appointed French interior minister, said he wished to improve border cooperation but called for more stringent measures against undocumented immigration, supposedly in Italy.

    "We have to be more efficient in the expulsion procedures of illegal migrants or those whose asylum request have already been denied," he told Journal du Dimanche. 

    Salvini, who is also a deputy prime minister and the head of the far-right League party, did not wait long to issue a sharp retort.

    "I am happy Castaner shares my views about illegal migrants. When I spoke of expulsions I was labelled a racist, even by the French. Better late than never". 

    The Italian government's hard line on migration has come under fire by French President Emmanuel Macron, but Castaner has tried to refrain from engaging in a spat with Salvini.

    Macron, however, has not hidden his antipathy for Salvini and his anti-migrant policies, describing the interior minister's approach as "nauseating".

    The two have engaged in a tit-for-tat, with Salvini replying by calling Macron a hypocrite disguised as a humanitarian who invokes solidarity while pushing away migrants, including children. 

    Amnesty accuses France of inhuman treatment 

    Perhaps paradoxically, Salvini's accusations are now finding an echo in the opposite camp of human rights watchdogs.

    On Wednesday, Amnesty International and 12 other charities accused France's authorities of mistreating refugees and migrants, including children, at the borders with Italy in what they described as the "inhuman and hypocritical behaviour of the French authorities".

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    The allegations came after a task force of 60 human rights lawyers and activists conducted a two-day mission at the French border town of Briancon, not far from Claviere.

    "The list of violations is long, and we join our voices to those of local NGOs so that the French government stops turning a deaf ear and stops these illegal and degrading practices," said Agnes Lerolle, coordinator of the French-Italian task force.

    "This inhuman and hypocritical behaviour is unacceptable in a state of law."

    Amnesty said the violations include obstruction of asylum requests, neglect of unaccompanied minors, mistreatment, harassment and denial of emergency healthcare and humanitarian assistance.

    "The attitude of French border control authorities is appalling," Riccardo Noury, a spokesperson for Amnesty told Al Jazeera. "The use of threats, scornful and aggressive behaviour towards defenceless people, especially migrant children, is deplorable."

    Amnesty denounced a systematic violation of the rights of migrants to request asylum. Under international law, migrants should always be granted the right to request asylum and unaccompanied children should be provided immediate protection, regardless of their status.

    "France is violating both principles," Noury said. 

    The French Ministry of Interior did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment on the alleged abuses.

    Denial of medical care and child protection 

    In one documented case, an Ivorian migrant was denied medical care after sustaining an injury during a chase by French guards in the woods.

    "Border police threatened to shoot him down if he didn't stop," said Noury. "He received medical attention only after being taken back into Italy."

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    An unaccompanied minor from Ivory Coast told Amnesty the French border police refused to acknowledge his age, saying "all migrants claim to be minors".

    "I was told, I cannot live in France if I am not a French citizen and I can never hope to become one," the minor told the UK-based rights group.

    In just two days, the task force witnessed 26 cases of migrants pushed back into Italy, eight of whom were unaccompanied minors. According to Amnesty, at least 11 of these refoulements were illegal and its lawyers have appealed to the Tribunal of Marseilles for their annulment.

    In June, Oxfam, Intersos and other human rights watchdogs condemned French methods - especially towards minor children along the southern border with Italy.

    They said minors as young as 12 were being held without food or care, put on trains or left at the border without any assistance despite their requests to remain in France.

    The charities accused French police of falsifying the birth dates of migrant children travelling alone in an attempt to pass them off as adults and send them back to Italy, as well as cutting the soles off their shoes to prevent them from trespassing again. 

    'Ping-pong game of migrants'

    But while France is allegedly violating the fundamental human rights of migrants, Italy has also come under criticism for its inability to implement a strict registration system of refugees arriving on its soil.

    The country has been unable to sustain a proper registration process for asylum seekers, who at times arrive by the thousands on Italian shores. Most migrants' centres are near collapse.

    There is no mechanism in place allowing for an integration process and stranded refugees remain exposed to the web of illegal labour and human trafficking at the hands of criminal organisations. 

    "In this ongoing ping-pong game of migrants between France and Italy there is a fundamental international norm that is being violated: the right to asylum," said Noury.

    "The Dublin Accord has turned the countries of the south, like Italy and Greece, into parking lots for human beings, because it lacks a solidarity principle of redistribution of migrants."

    The accord stipulates that a migrant should file their asylum request in the country of entry. The evaluation process can last many months and its acceptance is not granted. In the meantime, the host nation is left to bear the migrant's costs indefinitely.

    Southern countries such as Italy and Greece say refugees and migrants should be distributed among European states. Many also believe that the Dublin system pushes migrants to choose illegal ways to reach the north of Europe, thus increasing human trafficking. 

    According to estimates with the Italian Ministry of Interior, out of 82,000 asylum requests examined in 2017, some 52.4 percent were not eligible. Today, there are an estimated 600,000 undocumented migrants in Italy.

    "There is consensus over the fact that Dublin needs to be changed, but we are stuck," Hanne Beirens, acting director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, told Al Jazeera.

    "In the absence of a politically acceptable solution, countries are now adopting these ad hoc measures at the borders, like stopping secondary movements of migrants within Europe."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News